Blowing the Whistle on the CBC

One of the principles that managers are taught is the importance of listening to employees. Listening to employees makes them feel valued and included. But the other side of that principle, which regularly gets overlooked, is that the listening should result in action. If employees express concerns about the organization to managers, and nothing happens, that can lead to a distrust that potentially undermines the employee-manager relationship in the long run.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) is Canada’s publicly funded national English-language broadcaster; its French-language counterpart is Radio-Canada. In the last couple of years, CBC has had several internal management-employee disputes that have spilled into public view. After radio host Jian Ghomeshi was fired in 2014, it emerged that several employees had filed formal and informal complaints with CBC management about his harassment and abuse, but no meaningful action was ever taken. Last year, there was criticism of the CBC’s coverage of anti-racism protests in the US, reports that journalist/host Wendy Mesley had twice used the N-word in workplace meetings, and an arbitration decision that found CBC had wrongly dismissed a reporter who criticized comments by (former) hockey commentator Don Cherry. Not surprisingly, CBC employees then publicly expressed concerns about the lack of diversity within CBC’s own workforce, as well as bias in the choices of what was considered “news” and how some issues were presented.

In response to those complaints, CBC editor-in-chief Brodie Fenlon publicly committed to a number of workplace initiatives, including more inclusive hiring and promotion practices, and different approaches to newsgathering and reporting. What wasn’t included in Fenlon’s announcement was that around the same time CBC also established “Be Heard”, an internal “whistleblower” hotline for employees to report incidents of racism in CBC workplaces. The email to employees announcing “Be Heard” described the hotline as “just one of the ways we are planning to eliminate the structural obstacles and practices that contribute to race-based discrimination at CBC/Radio-Canada”.

This week, the PressProgress website obtained an internal report on the number and type of complaints made to “Be Heard”, based on the results of a freedom of information request by researcher Ken Rubin. The hotline received 12 complaints in its first six months of operation – which may seem low for a large employer, but it should be kept in mind that some complaints that might have gone to the hotline could have been addressed through discussion or other internal CBC mechanisms (such as the office of the Values and Ethics Commissioner) or through the grievance procedure available to unionized CBC employees. The majority of complaints to the hotline were related to “inappropriate comments” and “development and promotion”.

But the report also revealed a troubling decision made somewhere inside CBC. The reported data originally included a category for complaints about “discrimination/racism by management”, but – despite this category encompassing more than two-thirds of the complaints – it was dropped in October of last year.  When asked by PressProgress why this category was removed, a CBC spokesperson responded with a very generic statement: “We are concerned about discrimination by anyone in the workplace, including by management.”

Quite bluntly, this makes no sense. If the majority of whistleblower complaints involve management behaviour, and if CBC is truly concerned about addressing internal discrimination and racism, then there is no reason to eliminate the data category that identifies problematic management behaviour. The cynical side of me wonders whether someone in the CBC hierarchy thought these data portrayed management too negatively, and felt that the easiest way to counteract this perception was just to stop recording the embarrassing data.

For whatever reason this happened, it reflects extremely poorly on CBC and on its public commitments to increased diversity and inclusiveness. Listening to employees, whether it’s through a complaint hotline or some other method, also carries the responsibility of taking employees oncerns seriously and doing something about the issues that have been raised. And as a publicly funded organization, CBC also has a larger responsibility to the public it serves – it should not be brushing off questions with generic PR statements that don’t even address the question that was asked. If CBC is ever going to become a more inclusive and more equitable organization, its management needs to do the hard work of taking some meaningful actions.

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