December depaNews – Special Edition

2012 depa HR awards

We name the worst councils

These are prestigious awards. Launched in 2009 with the expectation that it would be a prestigious recognition of management excellence, depa’s HR Awards have highlighted some of the worst excesses of local government HR, are used by members and others to screen prospective employers, are highly anticipated and well-received by the industry (but not sometimes by the recipients) and they are intended to identify bullying, boofheadedness, infamy, incompetence, duplicity, opacity, hypocrisy and general nastiness.

Last year it was hard to separate the contenders and this year has seen some clumsy activity by HR, Directors of Corporate Services and General Managers to get their councils nominated.

Here are the contenders:

Richmond Valley

Richmond Valley ‘s new General Manager John Walker thought it made sense to beat his manly chest on ABC local radio shortly after his appointment and identify the nine day fortnight as something that he was going to remove. ABC News reported it like this:

The Richmond Valley Council’s new general manager says a dispute with staff is inevitable as it pushes ahead with plans to make them work an extra day a month. John Walker says at the moment Council workers have every Friday off. He says that's not efficient and staff need to be more available to the public and more flexible with their working hours.

“This to me is just something that needs reviewing,” Mister Walker said.

“It’s been in practice here for12 years at Richmond Valley and I think the world has changed. All I’m asking people to do is be flexible, not to be rigid. The unions are involved, the Council staff don’t want to change and so we’ll end up with the dispute.”

This declaration of war preceded the first meeting with the unions and, in the end, the Council sheepishly conceded that existing entitlements for employees couldn’t be touched. Anyone who knew anything could have told him that it always makes good sense to check how employees have entitlements and how long they have had them because that normally gives an indication of whether they can be snatched back. There is less embarrassment if you do this before you announce to the world that you are going to start stripping back conditions of employment and then find that you can’t.

And if you want to avoid disputes with the unions in the industry, you should avoid saying things like “the unions are involved, the Council staff don’t want to change and so we’ll end up with a dispute.”

That was a prediction that proved to be self-fulfilling because, tail between their legs, the Council has agreed not to touch the conditions of existing staff and those with a nine day fortnight, and even those with four day weeks, will continue to work them.

There must be something in the water up there because there has been a bit of posturing by other General Managers in the Far North Coast about removing these sorts of entitlements and, we reliably predict, they will have about the same degree of success as Mr Walker - not the first General Manager to find that he will would have handled the matter better had he taken Dirty Harry’s advice - a man's got to know his limitations.

Gosford City

While Richmond Valley is new to the nominations, Gosford is a regular nominee. Last year we said:

“Historically a pernicious, unimaginative, stonewalling and unpleasant employer which over the years has been so difficult we even had to resort to the IRC managing a process that resulted in an agreement between us that they would respond to our correspondence!”

Gosford was responsible for unleashing their conga line of incompetents in an investigation into one of our members. Individually and collectively, everyone from the Acting General Manager through the Director Corporate Services (goodbye and good riddance Terry, enjoy your retirement) a number of scary women from HR and an investigator who couldn’t find his own buttocks with two hands, contributed mightily to a slow and cumbersome investigation that, provided flawed conclusions and, after we filed a dispute with the IRC, resulted in a written apology to our member.

So concerned were our members at Gosford that they put a ban on any investigation conducted by these hapless folk until such time as the Council's policy documents governing the proper conduct of an investigation were changed. The ban has been in place now for 464 days and instead of actually collectively extracting their digits from the conga line to get something done about it, and get the ban lifted, it was apparently not a priority - despite their advice to the IRC that they would do this.

Still, who cares if the Council is happy to allow the ban to continue and have our members refuse to cooperate with any investigations carried out by this bunch of dopes. The ban meant the one of our members leaving the Council refused to be questioned. And the Council had no answer.

Their failure to do something to remove the ban and redraft policy makes Gosford a worthy nominee in 2012, but they also:

  • Announced that they were going to can the performance bonus arrangement that has operated by agreement for more than a decade because it was a managerial prerogative, started some discussions about buying out the performance bonus arrangements but couldn’t do calculations sufficiently accurate to continue the discussions. They conveniently forgot about the signed commitments by the unions and the Council at the time that this is how the salary system would operate. Sometimes signed commitments override management discretion. Anyway, “management prerogative” is the last refuge of the scoundrel.
  • Announced that GM Peter Wilson was retiring and, while he advised staff it was “with very mixed emotions” that he announced his retirement, emotions weren’t mixed amongst employees and the unions. Goodbye Peter.
  • Tried to frustrate moves by a member to job-share as a result of her family situation and, when we forced them to agree to it, dawdled on the implementation of the change for reasons they could only have been punitive to the employee concerned.
  • This process brought to our attention for the first time the Council’s practice of having job -share employees sign an “agreement” that they will cover any leave of their fellow job-sharer. That would work well, wouldn’t it? You’re job sharing because of the kids and you get 15 minutes notice that your co-worker won’t be at work and they made you agree to be there. We made them change these documents and also highlighted the stupidity of the relevant Manager recommending that the member sign anyway and worry about it later. Not even one of the conga line, just a boofhead.

Nambucca Shire

Okay, we all recognise that the GM’s decision to try to do without a Director of Corporate Services and do the job himself didn’t work. Being able to count and comply with deadlines is important sometimes. But having lumbered the Council with a two director structure and deciding that it made sense to return the position of Director of Corporate Services, what other directorate would disappear?

Clearly if you’ve got one good director in the form of the Director of Environment Services Greg Meyers, why not combine corporate services and environmental services and let Greg run the lot?

The clumsiness of this exercise was exacerbated by a consultant’s report boasting that the two director structure was working well in other councils and then neither the GM, nor LGSA's Management Solutions as the author of the document, were prepared to tell us what those councils were. We thought then, and we continue to think, that someone made this up.

(As an aside, we graciously decided not to humiliate the LGSA in any industrial proceedings where they would be acting for the Council and arguing that we ought not have access to a consultant’s report that their own business unit prepared. We forfeited the potential satisfaction available from having the IRC recommend that the LGSA’s industrial people prize information from the LGSA’s own Management Solutions in the interests of a good continuing relationship.)

All of this was done as a cost savings measure but someone’s calculations didn’t add up and only a few weeks after the new structure was announced, the GM decided they had to get rid of a few more people and change the structure again. Poor planning and hopeless management of staff and their aspirations.

We have a soft spot for HR at Nambucca because it has been historically benign and charming, but the GM needed a kick in the tail.

Lismore City

Lismore always gets nominated and last year we said:

For almost invariably getting it wrong at every opportunity, for never, ever understanding how to interpret the Award and for showing scant regard for the market and not doing things they said they would do - but let down by the departure of the old general manager and a chance of recovery.”

Well, what a year. We are not suggesting that anyone is stupid but dealing with Lismore brings a new dimension to impenetrable, obscurantist and duplicitous. But there was some spectacular delight as well, like the email from their HR Manager objecting to the clarity and transparency of our correspondence and saying:

“Mr Robertson

Your email and correspondence associated with this matter is considered highly offensive and prejudicial to the due process and standards expected of the NSW IRC conciliation and arbitration process.

As such, it is being referred to the Division of Local Government and the Ombudsman as an unprofessional conduct complaint in relation to a Union Official”

Where do you start with a stupid email like this? Probably by observing that the conduct of union officials does not fall within the province of either the Division of Local Government, or the NSW Ombudsman - confirming one of our observations in 2011 that they almost invariably get it wrong at every opportunity. And try as we might, we just can’t get a response about how those complaints went. We haven’t heard from the DLG, nor the Ombudsman, so assume that if a complaint was really made, people in those offices assumed it was a prank or a hoax by some looney. Maybe those dopey 2DAY funsters.

But our clear and unequivocal correspondence contrasts entirely with the way Lismore chooses to write letters of offer. Or anything else for that matter.

Our dispute last year about their failure to provide a condition of employment when they appointed two team leaders, continued into 2012. In being offered employment to new positions of Coordinator (previous Coordinator positions were merged and somewhat bizarrely came out at a lower grade than the positions which were being combined) the members were going to get “a pay system, specific to the coordinator level which will allow for further salary progression based on performance outcomes. This will be in place by February 2010. Criteria for salary progression will be negotiated within three months of appointment and will relate to satisfactory achievement of performance plans.”

But the Council failed to have a system in place by February 2010 and therefore also failed to negotiate the criteria for salary progression. And it was only when we filed a dispute in 2011, almost 2 years after this promise was made and it was still not provided, that the matter was resolved. Despite the Council’s abject failures to do what they had undertaken, the obscurantists at Lismore were going to bring four witnesses down for the arbitration - all of whom would have allowed this question to be asked in cross examination:

“Was the promise to introduce the pay system specific to Coordinators, the progression based on performance and the negotiation of criteria for this to occur by February 2010, lies when you wrote the letter, or did they subsequently become lies when you were too hopeless to do it by the time you said you would do it?”

It was all about how the Council wanted to “interpret” their own letter (something we discovered later was a special corporate approach to letters of offer) and it was clear that the Council loved to argue that what looked abundantly clear on the page really meant something entirely different.

Sometimes reason prevails and clearly no one at the Council is stupid - although the threat to make a complaint to the DLG and the Ombudsman must go very, very close – and the members had really had enough, and we settled for payments as if they had done what they said they would.

Being hopeless about delivering on what you’ve undertaken to provide at the Co-ordinator level is one thing but this year we were in dispute about doing exactly the same thing for a Manager. This dispute showed that the Council didn’t understand that Award increases carry the force of law and that increases directed to be paid by the superannuation board are the employer’s responsibility. The Council claimed they could withhold any or all of an Award increase and pay the employer’s superannuation contribution out of the employee’s salary component to keep their costs under their maximum TRP. Now, that is stupid.

Only stupid people employ anyone on a TRP when the Council can’t prevent Award increases or progression of control the costs of superannuation. The 2009 superannuation dispute killed off the concept of TRPs.

But it got worse. Having absorbed part of an Award increase and stolen more money from the employee’s salary component for superannuation, again it became a matter of the Council asserting how to “interpret” their own letter. Too long and boring a story really but seriously put by the Council that a prospective employee should ask the right questions about what a letter of offer means - even here when there had been multiple conversations with HR about the net benefits of making the move and now, still asserted in the same meeting this week where it was conceded that the letter of offer could have been clearer.

But the Council’s purpose was to hide the fact that employment was being offered at the top of the salary system rate of pay and that as far as the Council was concerned, the new employee would never, ever get any salary progression. Charming.

And all in the context of this employee weighing up whether to make the move to Lismore from a rewarding job elsewhere and, being aware of the precedents of the 2009 superannuation dispute, having specific conversations and seeking assurances that the TRP would not be used in this way. This is less than honest and as part of the resolution of this dispute (listed back in the Commission in the second week of January) we will make Lismore change their letters of offer to identify grades and progression options in the salary system so that a prospective employee can make an educated choice. No more confusing letters to trick prospective employees.

All this from a Council that has adopted values enforcing the showing of mutual respect, a sense of belonging for everyone, considering their actions and reactions to others, trusting others and encouraging honesty, and being accountable for what they do! Shame, hypocrites. Maybe it's all in the interpretation.

And wouldn’t you know it, Lismore has also breached the 10% maximum increase in leaseback fees under the Award by convincing the Consultative Committee that the 10% limit doesn’t apply when you change over to a new car - even if it is identical to your previous car. Here they are wrong again and something else to fix next year.

Last year we hoped for changes but new GM Gary Murphy has only disappointed.

And the winner is …

How could it be anyone else? Obscure letters of offer, poisoning relationships by neglect and dawdling with the Coordinator and Manager level, failing to deliver on what was promised in letters of offer, drafting those letters of offer with the intention that they be some bizarre puzzle to be disentangled and examined by a prospective employee rather than providing information which is clear and unequivocal, unable to respond to any deadline, prepared to spend money defending breaches of the Awards, damaging the trust and confidence in the relationship with employees at a critical managerial and supervisory level and all the time hypocritically boasting about mutual respect and being accountable for all that they do.

This year we will be providing a proper trophy and presenting it to Lismore. We’ll let you know how that goes as well.

That’s it for us to 2012

We will be closing the office for the year tomorrow afternoon. Wendy will be back on Wednesday 2 January and I’ll be back on 7 January.

Our best wishes to you all can be found in Robbo’s Pearls.



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