Firing sends chill through public sector (Editor’s notes)

We should be encouraging, not stifling, intelligent debate about policies, products and ideas
By Todd Humber
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/12/2012

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 that are 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, chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

Webster was terminated last month without cause after he refused to line up behind Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to build subways rather than light rail transit (LRT). 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 would build an extensive LRT network.

Webster, an internationally respected expert who has been at 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 offence that can justify dismissal. (Though Toronto didn’t attempt to claim just cause — it just bid him a not-so-fond farewell. But 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 anymore, thank you very much.

That’s not a healthy organization. That’s an organization of yes-men (and women). The last thing we need is leaders 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.

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