Bumper holiday reading - 2019 depa awards for the Worst HR in Local Government

This is the eleventh year that the prestigious and envied Golden Turd will be awarded.

How's HR been this year?

A bit of everything really:

We’ve seen it all, poor management and HR driving people from jobs; a lack of imagination and support for staff; micromanagement; quashing new ideas; failing to consult and being made to do it all again properly, particularly on organisational change, and consistent with clause 39 of the State Award; conducting investigations that shouldn’t have been conducted; some more wage theft, a couple of attempts at time theft at a couple of councils; bloody mindedness; senior staff sacked all over the place under their unfair contract, and possibly more blood to come.

One of our big issues is supporting flexibility at work for parents - something boasted about as a commitment by many councils but not always provided. Some rigid mindedness from bosses who really mean “the bloke goes to work, the sheila stays at home, just like I did, and my dad before me, and his dad before him”. Leaving aside the inherent misogyny and sexism, we’ve even seen a lack of imagination and support for mums, with one Council, demonstrating why 75% of workers who leave their jobs do so because of their bosses, and not the position itself.

 

There are a couple of councils that should have been more thorough in dealing with issues to determine whether a proper investigation was necessary before proceeding - with all the angst and anxiety for employees being interviewed and investigated involved in that kind of process, before proceeding. And then not proceeding. Our members cleared of any wrongdoing, of course

Yes you, Cumberland, somewhat surprisingly because you do everything else really well (but we know it was a decision taken outside HR) and yes you, Sutherland, with an investigation that shouldn’t haven’t proceeded because the issue was responding to punitive threats from outside the organisation at the expense of two valuable and high-performing supervisory staff who should have been better supported. But no-one to blame outside HR here. And the two staff cleared of any wrongdoing, of course.

We have nine nominations this year for the Worst HR in Local Government, and here they are in alphabetical order.

 Clarence Valley

Clarence Valley’s nomination is multifaceted.

First, a dispute with all three unions over their proposal to introduce more flexible working arrangements than the current 9-day fortnight but where employees were required to work an additional 47 minutes a day - pretty much an additional day over a fortnight. Never properly conceived as a proposal, chiefly by the Director of Works and Civil and the Director of Corporate Services, failing to consult and instead preferring simply to lecture and tell people what was happening.

Poorly handled right from the start, particularly by a very vocal Director of Works and Civil who seemed to have been struck dumb when the unions with a Commissioner of the IRC resolved the matter in Grafton, with the Council conceding that the proposals to thieve the 47 minutes would be withdrawn. Hey mate, cat had your tongue?

But still, not quite yet resolved. The settlement set up meetings to develop a protocol to incorporate the agreement made with the assistance of the Commission but the Council refused to minute the meetings. Then, without warning, they then tried in the final protocol, despite it containing reference to a standard working day of 7 hours, to insist that there was no overtime for work directed by management if it was worked during the bandwidth - setting up the possibility of people being required to work for twelve hours before they received overtime. No thanks, and yet to be determined.

Second, the rigid misogynistic attitude to part-time work for men to assist with childcare and parenting continued, and on one occasion, the GM being required to overrule a decision to reject the continuation of part-time work for a Dad. But while the GM stepped in after the employee appealed and overruled the Director the employee was denied a seamless continuation of his part-time hours creating childcare problems …  It’s hard not to assume it was punishment for his role in the RDO dispute. He returns to his part-time arrangements in January next year.

And then, when parents made claims for carer’s leave under the Award looking after kids when the local preschools and schools were closed as a precaution during the bushfires, the same vocal director (you know the one) rejected applications because “that’s not what carer’s leave is for”. Under the Award, carer’s leave is for “those who require care due to an unexpected emergency”, the Council must’ve got some advice from someone who knew what they were doing and despite us having clear evidence that these claims were rejected, the Council decided that they would be approved and that everyone had got it wrong ...

Hilltops

First, the director, a long-standing employee (and a real loss to the council) couldn’t stand the new regime any longer and resigned by giving the notice required under the standard contract and a final date of service of 12 March. Her final payment was made on 30 March but without any breakdown of the calculation which should have included accumulated annual and long service leave, adjustments to entitlements. And she hadn’t yet been paid the senior staff increase from 26 December. This is not just good practice, but a legal obligation. It helps stop wage theft.

Despite multiple requests for this information it was not provided and finally she was told the information would not be made available, and this was a decision of the GM. This became a comedy of errors, payroll hadn’t done the right thing, payroll wasn’t available to discuss it, the GM was going to fix it, multiple emails back and forward from depa and the member concerned, and finally on 15 April, 5 weeks after leaving, the calculations were provided. Uh oh …

In April a member brought us another example of wage theft, and, just like last year, targeting a trainee. Ordinarily, councils which put trainees on do so as part of building a committed local workforce. Starting with a local they appoint and train them, and then as part of this package make sure they retain them when qualified, taking advantage of their local knowledge and expertise.

In March 2017 the Council appointed this member on a “cadetship”. Six years for the duration of the degree, starting her at T9 of the trainee scale in the Award because that was the rate of pay she was receiving as an experienced administrative officer at the Council for years. The trainee scale provides virtually automatic progression on an annual basis subject to satisfying the University’s requirements.

This was the first mistake. HR, or someone else, had thought it was a good idea to put her on T9 (rather than T5 with an allowance) and not progress her in March 2018 or March 2019 despite the Director of Sustainable Growth having approved that progression, robbing the employee twice and then fantasising about providing progression, or not providing progression in the future, based on competencies. This is not how trainees are employed, clearly we’ve got novices at work here.

In May we wrote to Dr Marks recommending seeking advice from LGNSW, particularly from the person who was involved fixing the wage theft for our trainee member at Richmond Valley last year. Dr Marks (a PhD in Fine Arts, so clearly she would have had lovely art in her office) had no real experience of industrial relations, kept describing our member as the union’s “client”, claimed that the position in the PD was in fact T4 to T7 only so that should be no progression on that rate, and that they had a “training agreement” that overrode any Award provisions. So there. And so many things wrong with that.

Then followed confusion about the process; a response from the GM, “I am just in Canberra today” when all of our members had seen her in the Young office; then a proposal to settle with some progression and backpay, but not the full entitlement; then an argument about what should be the review date is always the employee’s anniversary, and then finally in July they collapsed.

Backpay from March 2018, more backpay from March 2019, and progression set up for the remainder of the traineeship. What an astonishing waste of everyone’s time.

And what an appalling way to treat a trainee you want to remain in the organisation forever.

Then some brawling over a restructure announced by the GM which had only identified the layer below the position of the GM. Nothing firm at this stage about what would happen at the manager level but the GM refused to accept there should be a further period of consultation with the unions when these plans were developed and everyone then knew what was proposed, what jobs might be gone, what jobs might be bigger, all the usual “significant effects” anticipated by clause 39(i). Clearly the GM didn’t like the idea of the unions and one or more of their “clients” getting in the way.

In October, thirteen months after her appointment, Dr Marks announced she would be leaving the Council in January. Quite an eventful thirteen months as far as our members are concerned, two of whom pulled the pin consistent with the research showing three quarters of employees leave an organisation to get away from their boss and went to better offers.

 Maitland

It’s hard being a parent, usually a mum, wanting appropriate part-time work at your Council and, despite the old-fashioned management, where you quite like the job. It’s also hard, because you can’t push too hard, and many mums and many dads have had to live with stupid, thoughtless and unimaginative approaches to things like “in relation to the car issue our current arrangements require a minimum 4 day 28 hour week to qualify for a leaseback vehicle.”

Parents are trapped, reluctant to be seen to pick a fight with their Council and often employees just decide to live with these sorts of unimaginative decisions.

We wrote “some councils do have alternative arrangements with leaseback cars where, in recognition of having the car for more private use, there is a scaled leaseback fee. (in fact, the Award provides for this opportunity in clause 16B(c)). Usually this is done to retain women because it’s far better to be imaginative and considerate in your employment arrangements and keep existing staff, than to have them go elsewhere to councils that do offer better flexibility on hours and also flexibility on cars as well. I know you’ve lost a few planners lately make matters worse...

Surely it’s not beyond the realm of imagination and possibility that Maitland could embrace the challenge of looking to recruit part-time planners in a job share arrangement? That would make you look like a progressive and caring organisation, which in time would be good for recruitment and being an employer of choice, if that was something you’re interested in ….

That thoughtlessness and lack of imagination sees the employee decide a few months later, as 75% of other people have done, to get a job somewhere else. This time in the private sector with flexibility beyond the imagination of those at Maitland. What a loss to both the industry and poor old-fashioned Maitland.

Narrabri

Narrabri is now infamous, particularly the GM of Narrabri Stewart Todd, virgin GM, and president of Local Government Professionals to boot. Sacking a member of ours as Director under the 38 weeks’ pay and no need to provide a reason provision of the standard contract, and after the director had postponed surgery to allow a manager working for him to take leave. The sacking meant that the Director didn’t have sick leave for his hospitalisation, even though he’d told the GM of his plan.

And now the Narrabri GM, famous across the industry in his bloodied apron and knife, has challenged the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to hear an argument that the employment contract was unfair under section 106 of the Industrial Relations Act 1996. This challenge means that while it might have been one employee who was senior staff at Narrabri immediately affected, the implications are wide, right across the industry. And into the future too, for those who aspire to be senior staff.

The Supreme Court considered the Council’s argument that there was no jurisdiction, vigourously opposed by us because we have always believed there needs to be an avenue for senior staff to challenge their termination, and a decision will be handed down early next year.

Plenty of time for more bloodshed before then. And depending how it goes, maybe even after.

Did I mention that the GM is the President of LG Professionals?

Newcastle

A GM working through an agenda that included moving everyone into new premises, multiple disputes about temporary employees, redeployment processes, car parking fines (after the CEO, Jeremy Bath introduced a two hour zone in the building and started fining his own staff) and, amongst all the things to do with planning of a new building with no allocated desks or offices for ordinary workers, someone forgot that they had cars for work purposes that needed to be parked.

It was only at the bitter end, minutes before the move, that arrangements were finalised.

Queanbeyan-Palerang

QPRC gets nominated for some clumsiness in notifications about organisational restructuring, which they had to do again. Clause 39 Workplace Change is clear and explicit, if the changes are significant, then 28 days’ notice must to be given in writing to the employees affected and the unions to which they belong. Seems clear.

But not clear enough down at QPRC and after our initial objections were rejected, we filed an industrial dispute. And in a first for us, the GM was so quickly onto us to not proceed that he agreed to fly to Sydney that week to talk to the unions about what was being proposed and why. And he was able to settle it by satisfying people about what was happening and the reasons why stop

The same HR people who couldn’t understand clause 39 also thought it made sense to propose new RDO arrangements (for administrative purposes to better suit the software) that would mean that the employee took an RDO every month, not every four weeks. And what this does is rob employees of the thirteenth RDO in the year.

Why is it that HR people always think no one will notice, or it’s a small price to pay for some claimed additional benefit?  It still removes an entitlement and employees are protected against losing entitlements when councils merge.

 Again, in we go over an issue that should not have been a problem and the unions ensure that it doesn’t happen that way, despite the claimed rigidity of their boring new software. Really, it was nothing more than a try on. An unsuccessful one at that that gets properly recognised here.

One of those responsible for these considerations is a Director on the Board of Local Government Professionals…

Shellharbour

Another early industrial dispute with two members of ours losing positions in a restructure and not having available alternative suitable positions that respect the requirement in the Award to be of “comparable skill and accountability levels and remuneration no less than the position previously held by the employee”. They chose to take redundancies.

Leaving an organisation because they have removed your position and don’t have a suitable alternative is a difficult and emotional experience for people. It requires sensitivity from HR and the bosses generally about the process, and a caring management of the exit strategy.

That didn’t happen at Shellharbour. In a lesson for everyone, the two employees thought they’d be treated fairly by the Council, there’d be no cheating, and didn’t seek our advice until it was too late. What the Council had done was be imprecise about final termination dates, not give them a targeted date, nor make clear to them what they intended to do with the “five weeks’ notice or payment in lieu thereof” to which both employees were entitled under the Award.

This meant that inadvertently the two employees found themselves working out their notice.

The industry takes the view that if people are electing to take a redundancy because their positions have been removed, they always get paid the five weeks’ pay in lieu of notice. And they get it often under arrangements where they agree to work for a period of time to accommodate the Council’s operational needs, sometimes they may even take some accumulated leave - because it’s easier to get a job when you’ve got a job or it’s better for superannuation or tax purposes to do it at the end of a financial or calendar year.

And it makes sense, as employees are often unhappy about their departure, to get them out of the place in an agreed way. Shellharbour interpreted the Award differently and thieved some wages. Sounds like cheating the standard way things are done in the industry.

We filed a dispute, a settlement was reached for one of our members but the other had already left. But the nasty taste in people’s mouths remains from the GM and HR’s behaviour led to us include in our log of claims for the 2020 Award some provisions about the desirability of reaching agreement on the exit strategy, and having a clear termination date so that people can’t be worked through their notice.

Snowy Valleys

Our first industrial dispute of 2019 was filed after the GM Matthew Wade refused to accept that a policy of the former Tumbarumba Shire, providing full course fees for a member upgrading to the Degree, (signed off by the member, the former director and the former GM but in documents somehow lost post amalgamation …) wasn’t an entitlement that should be protected by section 354D of the Local Government Act. This is the most important section for employees in merged councils because it protects whatever “entitlements” existed at the time of merger. It was beyond argument that this was an entitlement.

All the GM needed to do to have it clarified, without making life more uncomfortable for the employee’ was to contact the former GM of the former Tumbarumba. But he chose not to, preferring to write a series of letters to us rejecting the claim, letters that got longer and longer and make the employee increasingly uncomfortable. Bring back Tumbarumba....

Dispute filed and our member had his course fees reimbursed.

And then, as another virgin GM, Matthew sacked his three directors, one by one and separately, swearing them to confidentiality and not letting any of them know, as he was sacking them under the “without reason” provision in the standard contract, that he was sacking them all to clear the deck in a novel approach to restructuring. Why would anyone do that, the misery for those three being terminated, they thought as individuals, when it was all part of a job-lot clearing the deck?

It’s also poor HR management because you’ve denied yourself the possibility that when you do advertise for directors or deputy GMs or whatever you think you might end up with when you work out what you would like the structure to look like, you won’t be able to reappoint one or more of your previous directors who may well have been the best candidate. You’ve sacked them and paid them out a total of more than $300,000.  More than $300,000 public money too.

The folly was compounded by the restructure which followed proposing additional responsibilities to existing manager positions to the extent that the Manager of Building decided to pull the pin and take a redundancy - leaving the Council without their two most experienced and senior health building and planning professionals.

Lucky they’re close to Victoria and can pull people over the border with their expertise in Victorian law...

The GM is a director on the LG Professionals Board.

City of Sydney

This is the sixth year in a row that the City gets a nomination. Slow, slow, slow in everything they do when it comes to their relationship with their employees.

In November some disquiet from members about an internal proposal to introduce the 9 day fortnight had depa involved in a very well-attended meeting of members wanting action.

The City is a very old-fashioned employer. There is a façade of a modern, caring workplace, there are more women in managerial roles than any other Council and they can win an award for their inclusive and non-discriminatory employment practices, but a very traditional Award.

The City Award provides for those who ordinarily work 35 hours a week in the rest of the industry to work 38, where there are low barriers on the payment of overtime, and where, the last time we negotiated the Award the Council wouldn’t introduce the Health and Wellbeing provisions from the State Award because they didn’t trust their employees. First, they didn’t trust them to claim it responsibly and then clearly by implication, they couldn’t trust their supervisors and managers to consider those applications responsibly. They thought sickly was being abused but weren’t prepared to manage it themselves.  

That’s management’s job, if you think employees are taking too much sick leave, manage it.

While the Award is old-fashioned, it includes a provision that allows a union to make a claim to the CEO for an agreement on the introduction of a nine-day fortnight in particular work areas. This doesn’t preclude the Council’s managers pursuing the introduction of the nine-day fortnight for their unit or their staff if they believe there are good business reasons for it, and in March this year four managers did precisely that for the Health and Building Unit.

They prepared a thorough and compelling business case, addressing issues of the efficiency of the operation of the business, referring to the considerations in the Award and the Council’s policy on flexible working arrangements. And, supported by the Executive Manager presented two options to introduce a 9-day fortnight - one with a traditional and rigid rostered day off and one with more flexibility.

Nothing happened. Ordinarily, recommendations by managers who themselves are responsible for ensuring the productivity of their section or their unit, should carry serious influence “upstairs”. They are, after all, managers with skin in the game, and when they are supported by their Executive Manager, how could anything get in the way? But nothing happened.

So, at a meeting of our members it was resolved that depa take steps to pursue the 9-day fortnight consistent with the provision in the Award. We are doing but you can never underestimate the capacity for the City to go slow. Almost as if it’s a traditional and core value and a way to do business.

The Award specifies that any application by a union, and any consideration by the CEO, needs to be consistent with “the City’s policies and guidelines”. The meeting resolved we should write and ask for them, because there’s no point making a claim to put to the CEO that doesn’t respect them.

Our email to the CEO with the letter was, within eleven minutes, referred to the layer below, but it eventually found its way to HR and their infinite capacity to confuse, obfuscate, frustrate and delay, with a series of communications between us culminating in a response to our request that they provide us with the relevant policies and guidelines, asking “can you specify which specific policies you would like provided to you?”

No, I’m afraid we can’t, it’s critical to the process provided in the Award, we don’t want to create a problem that the City would use later to slow things down and that’s why we asked because they are the city’s policies and they are better placed to know which are relevant.

We filed a dispute, the City has undertaken to provide a response to both the Managers’ Business Case and our requests and the City is listed as our first dispute for 2020 in January.

And the winner is ...

Three of the nine councils nominated have someone on the LG Professionals Board, so we’ll keep an eye on their training courses and conference contents from now on. Too much raw meat for lunch?

The winner, with the worst HR in the industry could be Snowy Valleys, in many ways it should be Clarence Valley, it could even be the City of Sydney, now nominated for the sixth year in a row and begging for a lifetime achievement award, but how can we go past Big Stewie?

Leaving aside his breaches of section 337 of the Act when he sacked our member (by not consulting with the entire Council) and that he actually put our member on a senior staff contract inappropriately before the position was resolved by the Council to be senior staff under the terms of the Act (!) the physically and aurally towering GM stands like a colossus over the structure at Narrabri and the LG Professionals Board. But he stands in that role with a view of the future that sees senior staff continuing their precarious and high-risk employment where they can be terminated without good reason. They should never have been on term contracts in the first place - they are continuing jobs, it should be continuing employment.

And while Matthew sacked three, it’s the Narrabri GM and his steps to deny senior staff in local government access to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court that has a much, much broader impact. In our experience, and we’ve lodged Unfair Contract applications when the appropriate jurisdiction was the NSW Industrial Court, the employer may have wanted to argue jurisdiction, but in all our cases, and in numerous cases over the years, they inevitably settled.

The GM at Narrabri, and the Council that supported the termination have clearly embraced the idea that senior employees in the industry should have nowhere to go, under any circumstance, if their employment is terminated. Why the Council resolved to do this is a mystery, and why they would spend public money in a costs jurisdiction fighting the rights of people they don’t even know, or their circumstances in seeking redress, is a mystery.

It’s in no one’s interest to have senior staff in local government denied the same tests of reasonableness and fairness as their equivalents in the State Government. But Stewart Todd has made it his business to ensure that continues. And, it’s hard to not observe the element of self-interest, that he can continue to sack whomever he likes, without recourse.

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