Workplace described as despotic

Things have improved since 2010, though issues remain

James McLeod jmcleod@thetelegram.com
Published on July 21, 2012
Ann Marie Vaughan

Second in a three-part series

When current and former employees talk about working at the College of the North Atlantic in Qatar, they often use words like "toxic" and "dictatorship."

Numerous interviews with current and former employees and documents obtained by The Telegram reveal a landscape of favouritism, dysfunctional management and low morale among the Newfoundlanders, Labradorians and other Canadians working at CNA in Qatar.

In a 2010 workplace assessment report, 83 per cent of people interviewed reported low morale. The report detailed employees' complaints of "backstabbing and gossip" along with "being lied to" and "extreme micromanagement."

According to the assessment, employees were promised that "all personnel interviewed will receive an unedited report of the findings of the assessment which will be distributed by Hill Advisory Services" - the company that did the report.

However, when Hill Advisory Services delivered its 24-page document to the college, it was edited down to a 12-page version before being distributed.

CNA president Ann Marie Vaughan said the college took the report seriously, and in the past two years things have gotten much better.

"We hired a respectful workplace co-ordinator and a respectful workplace policy was implemented," she said.

"All of the employees identified in the report are no longer employed at CNA-Q and the entire CNA executive team has changed in the last four years. What we do know is that we have an 85 per cent signing rate of those that take subsequent contracts."

Advanced Education and Skills Minister Joan Burke, who is responsible for CNA and the Qatar project, refused to speak to The Telegram for this article.

The college has yet to respond on certain key points of the Hill Advisory Services report.

All employees who work for the college in Qatar are hired on contracts - generally for three-year periods. A consistent complaint from employees was that anybody seen to be speaking out or critical of the college would effectively be let go, by way of not having their contract renewed.

"If you are critical, you will get picked off," one current CNA employee said, speaking to The Telegram on the condition of anonymity.

"You simply won't be offered another contract."

Hill Advisory recommended that "a contract renewal process needs to be developed with the appropriate stakeholders so that staff know where they stand in this regard."

Two years after the report was done, a formal contract renewal process still has not been developed, Vaughan said.

"I will say to you that our processes, in my opinion, are not robust enough and it is a piece of work that we are currently working on in terms of how we would move forward," she said.

"It's my understanding that it comes from the recommendations of deans and who is interested in re-signing, and so it moves forward from that."

The employee acknowledged that things have "vastly improved" since 2010 when morale was at its lowest ebb. Since then, senior management has changed.

However, the problems have not gone away completely.

"Most of the bad guys at the top level are gone," the employee said. "The main weeds were plucked out of the garden, but there are lots of little weeds still there."

Some instructors working in Qatar report positive work conditions, especially in terms of the in-class work environment, the facilities and the pay.

Issues at the college were raised several times by Liberal education critic Andrew Parsons in the House of Assembly, and he said he's had complaints from at least 14 people working in Qatar.

"It's all complicated by the fact that we have people from Canada that are living over in that part of the world - it's a big adjustment as it is," Parsons said.

"They're over there and then they don't feel that they're being treated with respect. They feel that there's a lot of interference coming from up above; then tie in the fact that they don't feel they're being paid what they're supposed to be given.

"It just festers."

The management issues are in addition to a series of lawsuits by employees who say they are not being paid severance that they are legally entitled to under Qatari law. Despite the fact that the college has lost every case thus far, CNA has been fighting them in court, saying it is not money they are obliged to pay.

All of this comes against the backdrop of the overarching comprehensive agreement between Newfoundland and Labrador and Qatar, which will expire in one year.

jmcleod@thetelegram.com Twitter: TelegramJames

Monday: uncertain future