Solomon scandal points to broken workplace culture at CBC

CBC personality Evan Solomon interviews NDP leader Thomas Mulcair on budget day on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 21, 2013. REUTERS/Blair Gable

Mansbridge, Ghomeshi, Lang, Murphy, Solomon — it’s a veritable CBC “Murderer’s Row” of talent that has dragged the once venerable brand through the mud over the last 18 months.

Each scandal has sparked admonishment, its own internal investigation, and a resolute claim by the Mother Corp. that its collective integrity remains intact.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

It was again shaken this week as news broke that popular Power & Politics host Evan Solomon has been secretly making hefty commissions from art deals he helped broker with people he interviewed.

Solomon, à la former radio host Jian Ghomeshi, was swiftly terminated on the heels of a report by The Toronto Star that alleged he earned in excess of $300,000 from some of his commissions and identified former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney and BlackBerry co-founder Jim Balsillie as some of his more prominent clients.

CBC honchos were quick to spin the Solomon saga as just another rotten apple, but network news chief Jennifer McGuire noted in an employee memo that the broadcaster was “shooting itself in the foot” with all the scandals.

McGuire, however, appeared to point the finger more toward flawed employees, stating: “It’s time for every single professional journalist and media organization to stop providing ammunition.”

But if your employees keep screwing up, isn’t that on the employer? And doesn’t it point to a defective corporate culture?

“It’s the employer’s responsibility to have a safe, ethical workplace and to enforce the workplace culture that it endorses,” insists Vancouver-based labour lawyer Ritu Mahil. “If things are going on contrary to those values then a complete overhaul may be required.”

Mahil says that could involve a thorough review and revision of all workplace policies and a company-wide retraining of staff.

“You would think that you wouldn’t have to inform adults what is appropriate or inappropriate for a workplace,” she adds. “It doesn’t help to just have policies in place; you have to inform your employees.”

The aftermath of the shocking sex-assault allegations against Ghomeshi recently produced a scathing report by investigator Janice Rubin that highlighted CBC’s troubling nature of “host culture” and made numerous recommendations, including better employee education, training, and communication on sexual harassment, assault, and other inappropriate workplace behaviours.

Apparently Solomon didn’t get a copy.

Following Ghomeshi’s dismissal, CBC president Hubert Lacroix lamented that it “raises concerns that our systems have not been enough, and that upsets us deeply.”

But that statement could be equally applied to Solomon, or the speaking-fee scandals that have ensnared CBC elites Peter Mansbridge, Rex Murphy, and Amanda Lang. All three have had their journalistic integrity questioned by the fact they accepted money from organizations they covered or reported on.

After the Lang affair, the broadcaster banned all “paid appearances” and asserted that it “holds itself to the highest standards of journalistic integrity.”

In most, if not all, of these cases, the CBC’s initial response was it didn’t think it was a big deal. It was only due to the investigative efforts by the Star and others that the network’s hand was forced.

Solomon even informed his employer about his side gig a couple months prior to his termination, although the details of that conversation have not been fully disclosed.

The fact that there were no alarm bells sounded is troubling, but not surprising says Toronto-based employment lawyer Ken Krupat.

“People who become bigger celebrities tend to have much looser strings around them on some of these things,” says Krupat, who specializes in wrongful dismissal cases. “There tends to be a relation between the economic value of the individual to the organization and what the employer is going to be prepared to do about it.”

When sports teams endure a rash of badly behaving athletes observers point to “chemistry” or “character” issues in the locker-room. There is often a purging of both players and management in an attempt to “clean house” and reboot the culture.

When the same issues afflict a more traditional company a solution is harder to enforce.

“It takes time to change a culture,” says Krupat, who has worked at large law firms where “outrageous abusers” are tolerated simply because they bring in a lot of money. “No one is going to trade LeBron James from Cleveland if they can avoid it.”
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