Report Exposes Climate of Fear at TCHC
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Report Exposes Climate of Fear at TCHC

Damning report from Toronto's ombudsman could lead to the firing of TCHC CEO Gene Jones.

Photo by Vik Pahwa, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Today, the ombudsman released a damning report about human resources practices at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC)—one that could lead to the dismissal of CEO Gene Jones at an emergency board meeting being held this afternoon. In the report, ombudsman Fiona Crean suggests the work culture at TCHC is governed by a “climate of fear” and finds that repeated HR violations committed by Jones and a handful of other senior executives have created a “destabilizing effect” on the organization.

The alleged violations contained in the report include:

  • Failing to disclose conflicts of interest during the hiring process. (CFO Jason Gorel, for example, sat on the board of directors while he was being considered for the position of CFO, and did not recuse himself until partway through the hiring process.)
  • Awarding positions prematurely, while job competitions were still supposed to be open.
  • Creating new jobs without providing a description of responsibilities or following the procedure for making jobs open.
  • Giving some employees raises above their pay grade, while inconsistently awarding compensation. Only 14 per cent of employees went through the proper job evaluation process linking performance to compensation.

Crean characterizes her findings as “a shocking story about the abject failure of leadership from the top.”

The report contains a number of recommendations: the organization, for example, should comply with its own policies and procedures, and train members of the board of directors and those with hiring power about those policies.

Such suggestions might seem to reflect only basic common sense, but at least one high-level TCHC executive expressed doubts about the utility of the organization’s guidelines. Anand Maharaj, vice-president of human resources, told the ombudsman’s office the HR policy framework was “outdated” and suggested HR hiring policies were something of a hindrance:

We could have gone through a competition for the sake of going through a competition … and then [the employee] would have been successful … It would have been … a formality. And that involves a lot of time, effort, resources from my staff and other people who are going to apply … knowing that there’s somebody who is capable of doing the job and they’re occupying a role within the organization …

Gene Jones himself apparently doesn’t feel it’s important for a CEO to familiarize himself with an organization’s policies. The ombudsman’s report notes that “the CEO believed that his actions were his prerogative and that he had no responsibility for knowing the rules because it was the responsibility of his VP of HR to ensure that they were followed.”

The relevant rules were not followed, the report indicates, when Jones hired the former executive assistant of a councillor without posting or holding a competition for the position. Lisa-Joan Overholt, former EA to Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1, Etobicoke North) and a volunteer for Rob Ford’s mayoral 2010 campaign, was taken on as a manager—six months later, Overholt was promoted to a senior director position and given a $30,000 raise. When the ombudsman asked Overholt and Jones to provide a job description of her role, they could not do so. Another employee, Graham Leah, was appointed to be TCHC’s interim vice-president of asset management, a position for which he had not even applied.

And the HR irregularities also extend to firings: the ombudsman found that between June 2012 and October 2013, there’d been 41 terminations without cause, including 15 at the director level and 14 involving people with more than 10 years’ experience. “Terminations often seemed poorly planned, even impulsive,” Crean observes, “and conducted without regard for the knowledge gaps they created.” Since Jones joined the TCHC, there have been at least four COOs; three have been fired.

Jones came to TCHC in June 2012 with a mandate to clean up the organization and promote more openness and transparency. He was hired from the Detroit Housing Commission, but that organization is on a very different scale from TCHC; based on the number of housing units, the DHC is less than five per cent the size of TCHC.

Jones’s populist style quickly won favour with many tenants and with the mayor, who frequently hosted him on his weekly radio show. Not everyone, though, was won over. Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), for example, noted that when he asked Jones during their first meeting how he would reconcile his plans to lay off frontline staff with his goal to improve customer service, Jones said he would personally attend to tenant calls. But when Perks asked him if he knew how many tenants lived in TCHC (164,000), Jones did not know.

According to a TCHC report from the first half of 2013, employee complaints had risen by 37 per cent since the first half of 2012. One current TCHC employee, who spoke with Torontoist on the condition on anonymity for fear of losing his job, said that “the culture of fear [at TCHC] causes paralysis in the workplace.” Jones frequently blames the previous administration for a rotten culture at TCHC, but another TCHC staffer indicated that the good things that have happened at TCHC have not happened because of Jones, but in spite of him. Staff report that Jones frequently misses meetings, and that when he does attend, he often arrives late and does not seem to have read the relevant reports.

While the ombudsman’s report focuses on the internal work culture and HR practices of TCHC, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) argues that the lack of leadership at TCHC has caused problems for tenants. The high employee turnover rate at TCHC, she says, has left councillors and tenants confused about whom to contact when problems arise. “[TCHC employees] are scared to be seen talking to me,” Wong-Tam said in an interview. “They’re scared to be seen responding to a service request. And if that’s the case, that they’re instructed not to speak with councillors or the tenants they serve, then who on earth are they talking to?”

Random firings and a lack of succession planning, Wong-Tam notes, also mean that projects have ended abruptly and institutional memory has been lost: because new employees didn’t know where contracts and warranties were kept, for example, amenities recently installed in TCHC buildings could not be fixed, despite repeated requests.

This is not the first time TCHC management has faced criticism in recent months. In February, the board revoked Jones’s bonus and mandated that he get executive training after a probe revealed he’d improperly followed HR practices. At the time, there was an effort to remove him from the board, but the board ultimately voted 12 to one against firing him.

The TCHC board of directors convened a closed session at 2 p.m. today to discuss the report and will hold a public session at 5:45 p.m. It is unclear what Jones’s fate will be—Councillor Cesar Palacio (Ward 17, Davenport), a TCHC board member, told CP24 today that he still has confidence in Jones. On the weekend, Rob Ford told the Star that he would support Jones regardless of what the ombudsman’s report contained—a sign that there could be political resistance to his dismissal.

“The person who has to own this is Rob Ford,” said Gord Perks. “He brought in someone who, like himself, substitutes a cult of personality for real systemic analysis and solutions. And this is what happens.”

If Jones and other executives were to be fired by the board, it’s not certain what the next steps for the organization would be. It would have to appoint an interim CEO, but given the recent turnover at TCHC, the internal options are limited.

In a statement released today, TCHC commented that “management acknowledges that its actions fell short of the high standard of transparency, equity, fairness and respect that Toronto Community Housing, as a public sector employee, must meet.” Gene Jones was given an opportunity to read and respond to the report, but when the ombudsman followed up with him to get his feedback, he was unable to provide any. He hadn’t read it.

TCHC Final Report

CORRECTION: April 23, 2014, 12:45 PM This post originally stated that Graham Leah was appointed to be TCHC’s interim COO; he was in fact appointed to be the interim vice-president of asset management. We regret the error.