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Firing of Toronto transit chief sends wrong message

We should be encouraging, not stifling, intelligent debate about policies, products and ideas

By Todd Humber

These are not fun times to be a public sector employee.

Unionized workers and management alike are being buffeted by political storms. Austerity remains the word of the day, and taxpayers — weary from years of economic turmoil in the private sector — are in no mood to support what they consider lavish and excessive perks for those on the government payroll.

But it’s not just taxpayer angst and fear of job loss making life in the public sector rough — tolerance for dissent appears to be on the wane. There’s no better example of this than the firing of Gary Webster, the chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

Webster was terminated on Feb. 21 without cause after he refused to line up behind Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to build subways rather than light rail transit.

For those reading this outside the Toronto area, suffice it to say the battle over public transit in Canada’s largest city has been ugly. In a nutshell, the mayor wants all expansion to go underground, but a plan approved by council builds an extensive network of light rail transit.

Webster, an internationally respected expert who has been with the TTC for more than three decades, wouldn’t support the mayor’s plan because he thought it simply didn’t make sense anymore.

One can argue Webster was guilty of insubordination, which is an offense that can justify dismissal. (Though Toronto didn’t attempt to claim just cause — it just bid him a not-so-fond farewell, and he’ll stay on the payroll until his contract expires in July 2013. So don’t shed any tears on his behalf.)

But not all insubordination justifies dismissal. Some insubordination, in fact, is absolutely critical to building a healthy organization.

That’s what is troubling about the Webster dismissal — the chilling effect it could have on bureaucrats. The not-so-thinly veiled message is simple: Disagree with the boss, and you’re toast.

You may have been hired for your expertise, and you may have years of experience, but if you don’t toe the political line of the day, your services won’t be required any more, thank you very much.

That’s not a healthy organization. That’s an organization of yes men (and women). The last thing we need for leaders is to have them surrounded by people afraid to speak up.

That’s how we get Enrons.

In public- and private-sector organizations we should be encouraging, not stifling, intelligent debate about policies, products and ideas. Webster was not the ultimate boss at the TTC — that’s the role of city council. It has the right to accept or reject his recommendations. Plenty of staff recommendations end up on the scrap heap.

Firing a worker for doing his job sends a bad message. The signal coming from the mayor’s office in Toronto is simple — you’re either with us, or against us.

That’s a terrible way to run a city. That’s a terrible way to run any organization.

Todd Humber is the managing editor of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. He can be reached at todd.humber@thomsonreuters.com.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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