Time to Clean House at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation
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Time to Clean House at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation

Will the TCHC board do the right thing and show CEO Gene Jones the door?

Photo by Flickr user Padraic.

Tomorrow, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s board of directors is expected to respond officially to ombudsman Fiona Crean’s blistering report on human resources practices at the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. Will they have the courage and sense to fire CEO Gene Jones?

The highlights of the report have been well publicized. According to Crean, hiring for key roles was frequently done without holding competitions, promotions and raises were handed out to favoured staff without the required review and oversight, and long-time employees were fired abruptly without cause or explanation, potentially leaving significant knowledge gaps in the organization. In one particularly egregious case, Jones’ executive assistant was paid $107,000 in 2013 (more than the director of compliance and legal counsel), and an attempt was made to shift some of her overtime pay from 2013 to 2014 in what looks like a ham-handed attempt to keep her off of the Sunshine List.

Such actions contravene not only generally accepted best practices, but also specific human resources policies in place at TCHC.

When challenged about the problems, Jones offered a two-part defence: he had been unaware of the relevant rules because no one had told him about them, and in any case, the breaking of those rules was his prerogative as CEO.

If the “I didn’t know/didn’t care” dyad of justification sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been taken directly from Mayor Rob Ford’s entitlement playbook, and draws from a leadership style that has been reducing productive activity and increasing partisan squabbling at City Hall since Ford became mayor in 2010.

It’s not likely that Jones and his team were unaware they were flouting the rules. Shortly after Crean contacted TCHC last August and advised staff there of her intention to conduct an audit, consulting firm Mercer LLC was hired to run a virtually identical review in what may have been an ass-covering exercise intended to demonstrate an attempt at compliance.

Conviction and decisiveness are valuable traits in a chief executive, especially one like Jones, who’s been hired to turn a floundering organization around. However, management by fiat and disregard for processes deemed inconvenient don’t work in a large public agency that is also one of the most sensitive portfolios in municipal government.

Although Jones and TCHC chair Bud Purves have advised Crean in writing that they “accept [her] findings and will act swiftly to address deficiencies,” there’s little evidence that Jones is interested in ratcheting down his damn-the-rules-my-EA-needs-a-Mercedes management style.

Indeed, when the ombudsman presented her findings to the management team, Jones acknowledged that he had delegated the review of the report to the VP of Human Resources, and according to Crean, he participated only minimally in the discussion.

While Jones may deserve to be fired, it’s unclear whether the board will have the will to do it—in part because it’s facing political pressure. Mayor Rob Ford, who’s never found a china shop that wasn’t worth riding a bull through, has declared his support for the embattled CEO and suggested shooting the messenger by eliminating the position of dedicated ombudsman.

Moreover, letting Jones go might be a hard sell because his activities could be seen to reflect poorly on the board itself. Crean’s report notes that in one case, the board rubber-stamped a questionable promotion to a senior director position for which no job description had been written, and in another, approved an internal VP appointment although the appointee had neither applied nor interviewed for the job.

Was the board cowed by Jones’ aggressive style? An unnamed board member interviewed for Crean’s report, referring to a perception that some members of the senior management team may have been unqualified or out of their depth, said, “I believe [the] CEO’s position was … ‘Look, I’ve worked very closely with these people; I think they can do the job and I’m willing to give them the chance.’ Now that is [CEO]. That is who he is … at the end of the day … if [the CEO’s] comfortable, then as a Board it’s kind of difficult to say, well, we don’t agree with your comfort.”

Fair enough—but as questioning the CEO is their job, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to expect them to navigate a little difficulty in order to make sure the organization is both transparent and effective.

Having failed to address obvious and over-the-top mismanagement while it was taking place, the board now has the opportunity to salvage some credibility by preventing a recurrence. Here’s hoping it does the right thing.