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St. FX’s Coady Institute staffers leaving in droves

In the last three years, more than a dozen staff have left the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University. Many of them cite a toxic work environment. (FILE)
In the last three years, more than a dozen staff have left the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University. Many of them cite a toxic work environment. (FILE) - FILE

‘I’d come home from work every night bawling’

ANTIGONISH, N.S - Former employees of St. Francis Xavier University’s Coady International Institute in Antigonish allege a toxic work environment and a management style that has veered sharply from the principles it teaches.

Meanwhile, Coady vice-president June Webber counters that the organization is following through on a new institutional strategy that was developed in consultation with staff and other global development leaders around the world.

“We reflected on the fact that Coady was founded 60 years ago when it was the only institute of this kind in the world,” said Webber.

“The development models and the global world has changed. Our institutional strategy did set direction for us.”

The Coady International Institute brings community organizers from around the world to Antigonish for courses in leadership, sustainable development and good governance.

“It became a place where people felt demoralized and were in their offices crying a lot,” said a former staff member who didn’t want to be named for fear it would affect future employment prospects. The former employee alleges having been bullied into leaving Coady recently.

“Five or six different people have gone off on sick leave in the past year.”

A lot of people are going out the door.

Earlier this week it was Webber’s own executive assistant. Within recent months, the director of finance was fired and an email to staff cited “breach of trust” as a reason. Webber refused to speak to reasons for the firing, calling it a human resources matter.

Four staff members and associates who have left the institute in the past year who spoke to The Chronicle Herald claim 19 people have quit or been fired since January 2017.

Webber pegs the number at 16 out the door in three years. The Coady’s website lists the institute as having 36 staff members.

“There were five people whose positions have been terminated due to restructuring,” said Webber.

“A number of people sought other career opportunities. A number retired. We’re really aware of the fact that this kind of movement is not inconsistent with what had happened before.”

Some 20 staff, nearly half the workforce of the institute, jointly composed a letter in May 2017 outlining concerns with the institution’s new strategy, its management style and seeking mediation. Another former staff member who was one of the six signatories to that letter says 16 others participated in its writing but declined to sign for fear of retribution.

“We were concerned by a top down approach to things where people were increasingly not included in decisions about their work,” said the former employee.

“That they were silenced in meetings and increasingly felt like they couldn’t ask questions about what was happening. That they weren’t allowed to challenge or question the vice-president.”

Two people who signed the letter, who asked not to have their name used for fear of legal retaliation, said as a result of being signatories they were sidelined and bullied.

“If you challenged management there was always the threat you would be written up or fired,” one of the letter’s signatories told The Chronicle Herald on Friday.

“I’d come home from work every night bawling.”

Both have since found other jobs and left Antigonish.

Webber said employees’ concerns were heard and taken seriously.

She said the department of human resources was brought in, along with union representatives for a discussion that resulted in an action plan to address the concerns raised in the letter.

She said that the steps to be taken have since been brought back to staff on a “very regular” basis to validate their concerns and ensure the work environment was improving.

A second letter was sent to management in June 2017 by associates of the Coady — former staff and program members who work on a contractual basis — seeking to clarify their role in the future of the institute.

Olga Gladkikh, retired manager of education programs at the Coady who had been working as an associate, was one of its 14 signatories.

“Less than a month after sending that letter I got a phone call informing me my services would no longer be needed,” said Gladkikh.

“It is not that staff who have left are resistant to change. It is the way change is being imposed, the direction and the pace. Now it’s a top down management structure where the input of staff has no value. The director’s team has created a toxic and unhealthy atmosphere.”

Webber countered that ending the use of associates resulted from a decision to instead rely on full-time staff at the institute to teach courses.

As part of this story, The Chronicle Herald spoke to five former employees of the Coady International Institute who shared similar experiences.

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