Resources & Insights

Investigations in Municipal Workplaces

Municipalities, just like all employers, have an obligation to investigate complaints of workplace harassment under the Occupational Health and Safety Act as part of their duty to provide a safe workplace. Municipalities also have similar obligations pursuant to the Municipal Act. Although municipal workplaces are similar to all workplaces in that there is always a risk of interpersonal conflict, there are some unique factors at play in these workplaces which require particular examination when investigating alleged misconduct. This is especially so when the allegations involve elected members.

All too often, allegations of workplace harassment involve a supervisor or manager acting inappropriately around their subordinates. There is almost always a sense of vulnerability in these circumstances as employees might feel afraid or helpless in situations that might create conflict with a superior. This vulnerability is heightened in municipal workplaces, however, where there are members who are elected by the public on the one hand and staff employed by the municipality on the other.

It is the responsibility of elected members of council to decide which policies and services the municipality will establish and provide. Municipal staff are responsible for implementing council’s decisions. The increased vulnerability arises out of the extreme power imbalance between council and staff. Council are typically admired and imbued with respect and moral authority while municipal employees enjoy little public veneration. When conflict arises in these relationships, a municipal employee can easily be left feeling defenseless and deferential. Not only might this power imbalance influence the behaviour of both parties, but it also provides deeper meaning to such behaviour and communication.

As findings of workplace harassment are heavily context driven, it is crucial to keep in mind this power imbalance when conducting interviews and examining evidence in municipal workplaces. It may also be the case that a potential respondent may not be aware of the inherent power they hold and the risk of it being easily abused. When conducting any type of workplace investigation, it is crucial that consideration is had to the specific contextual factors that are unique to that particular workplace.

Written by Nicolas Guevara-Mann and Harold Elston