In BUFA President

Monday, July 16, 2018

Dr. Gervan Fearon, President
Brock University
1812 Sir Isaac Brock Way, ST 13th Floor
St. Catharines, ON L2S 3A1

Dear Dr. Fearon,

Recently BUFA was copied on a memo that was sent to you by the Department of Psychology that expressed their upset about HR practices in relation to the termination of staff members’ employment. This is not the first time we have heard this kind of concern from our members. We have also learned that the Brock University Retirement Association has met with you to express their dismay about similar issues. Therefore, we are writing to underscore our broad concern about changes that have happened in institutional practices since 2014, when a large number of Brock employees lost their jobs, that have led to damaging shifts in Brock’s social climate.

Prior to 2014, most staff were proud of Brock and truly enjoyed working here. People would talk about the “Brock family”, the “Brock community”, and these were not catch phrases but genuine descriptions of their experience. They also felt that HR was there to support them. While of course there were pockets of problems, as in any employment environment, in general Brock’s organizational culture was experienced as being a respectful, supportive, compassionate—and safe—place to work.

This is no longer the case. Staff tell those of our members whom they trust that they now feel afraid and unappreciated. They feel like a disposable commodity rather than a valued colleague and team member. They feel that Brock University has morphed into Brock Inc. HR is no longer seen as an ally, but an adversary. As a result, rumours that are damaging to Brock’s reputation, and perhaps more important to staff morale, are circulating, such as (to state just a few) that when people are dismissed they are walked to their cars by campus security, that if you express criticism of Workday you will be fired, and that the privacy of email is not respected by administrators.

Undoubtedly a perceived necessity for downsizing the employee complement was the start of this distress. However, even for those who believed that this was necessary, it is certain practices of HR, such as those specified below, that have fueled the distrust and malaise:

  • When people’s positions are terminated, they are required to leave immediately without being allowed to tidy up jobs that are mid-stride or being able to say good-bye to colleagues. This sudden disappearance of a colleague is not just inconvenient, as it often is, it is frightening and demeaning. Even though this may be a common practice elsewhere, particularly in for-profit corporations, common practices are not necessarily best practices.
  • Moreover, if these layoffs were solely about reducing the number of positions for financial reasons, then when a position was eliminated the duties would have been re-distributed. But instead, often a similar position was shortly thereafter posted and a new person hired. The fact that several of those new employees have been hired from the Niagara Region fuels suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that this is not about shrinking employee complement so much as dismissing some people so that specific others can be hired. But apart from that belief, this loss of experienced people and bringing in of new employees has led to a sharp decline in institutional memory.
  • Staff unease and distrust are also fueled by the fact that although so many new positions have been created, people are simply fired instead of being retrained or mentored in the new positions or redeployed. For example, in a hypothetical situation if four positions are re-organized into three, then ideally only one person would be fired. But instead the new practice seems to be that all four are dismissed and three new are hired.
  • It also has seemed to some that when a number of the OSSTF positions were eliminated, similar, new positions emerged that were outside the union.
  • There is also a perception that age may be a factor in dismissals—that those laid off seem to be disproportionately older than those hired. We cannot know if this is true, but the perception that it is true contributes to a belief that employees will be discarded when they inconveniently cost Brock more.
  • Finally, in recent years new staff, as well as staff who are given promotions or new job descriptions, are required to sign a multi-page form that includes a section in which they waive their right to negotiate or pursue through the courts a better severance package than the minimums set out in the Employment Standards Act. This waiver of rights is required even though it is a common practice in Ontario for employees terminated without cause to receive more than those minimums. This dismaying—indeed rather embarrassing—change in practice communicates to staff that the Brock administration does not think highly enough of them to even give them a fair severance package, should it become necessary to terminate them.

Although our BUFA members are not subject to these issues because of our Collective Agreement provisions, we have been affected in a number of indirect ways:

  • While it is impossible for us to track or document this, it seems that we have seen an increase in sick leave since 2014; it certainly is well established in the research literature that increased absenteeism and illness correlates with job-related stress and demoralization.
  • The loss of institutional memory has meant that simple tasks that used to be seamless are now more time-consuming and frustrating. As an example, one of our members had a student whose grade change had not gone through and who now was in danger of not being able to convocate. In times past, this crisis situation would not have happened because the student’s grade change would have been swiftly processed. Now the faculty member had to intervene but whereas, before she would have known who to call, neither she nor the department administrative assistant knew who to call. This confusion was the result of personnel and job responsibility changes, with inadequate transition of knowledge and practice. In the meantime, our member had multiple interactions with the upset student and the student’s parents.
  • We have had to spend time talking to staff about their concerns, fielding questions we often cannot answer, and attempting to comfort them about their job security, while knowing that we are not in fact in a position to fully reassure them.
  • We ourselves have been upset by the unexpected disappearance of support colleagues.

But more generally, we are concerned about the direction of the institution, its apparent loss of “heart”, and the risk of damage to our reputation in the community. For example, we have been told that a person who was terminated from Brock found that more than one job interviewer reassured them that they did not need to be concerned about explaining their exit from Brock because Brock is now known to shed employees. We cannot know the extent of this perception, but is this how we want to be known in the community?

Finally, several questions have arisen in our conversations with others about these issues that merit answering:

  • Brock has very detailed processes for hiring a new person that involve careful costing of the proposed position, arguing for its necessity, and close scrutiny of the request by several people. The process includes ample checks and balances. Is there a similarly detailed process for firing people with the same level of oversight? It is our current understanding that there is not.
  • This brings us to a question of what are the associated costs with firing employees? How much has Brock paid out in severance packages over the last 10 years? How many lawyers are on retainer to deal with associated HR issues? And what are the costs for posting and hiring of new replacement positions? In other words, although re-training and redeployment have their own associated costs, how do these compare to the costs associated with current practices?

We should note that we do not assume that the fault for this situation lies with individual HR employees but with the directives from senior administration and with the organizational culture that has been created in recent years.

We believe that the Brock administration needs to make public and explicit efforts to address the above morale and personnel problems. One possibility is to set up an advisory committee, independent of HR, who could consult confidentially with staff and others, to explore the issues and propose changes. Another suggestion is for the University to immediately review its termination practices to give priority to retraining and redeployment, wherever possible. Furthermore, we would suggest that the practice of having employees sign away their right to negotiate a better severance package than the minimums specified in the ESA be discontinued immediately.

BUFA recognizes that administration has management rights, but we suggest that changing HR practices would allow us to gradually rebuild trust and employee loyalty, and make Brock a community, a “Brock community” again.

Regards,

Michelle Webber, Ph.D.
President, Brock University Faculty Association
1812 Sir Isaac Brock Way, MC D402
St. Catharines, ON  L2S 3A1
Phone: (905) 688-5550 ext. 4411
[email protected]

 

Update: August 1, 2018 – Response from President Fearon
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