Bell Media launched two separate investigations into allegations of bullying, sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behaviour last year, documents show.
Taken together, the investigations raise more questions about the workplace culture of a company whose newsrooms have come under increased scrutiny since the controversial firing of CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme.
The first investigation took place at specialty news channel CP24, which is owned by Bell Media.
According to multiple sources close to CP24, several employees filed complaints with the newsroom’s human resources department and the workers’ union in late 2020 and early 2021 when Bell Media’s current head of CTV news Michael Melling was general manager of the station. The complaints cited a “toxic” and “stressful” workplace environment that prompted at least four staff members to take leaves of absences.
In the following months, sources say, roughly 15 employees — some of them well-known news anchors — left CP24.
The second investigation, which was conducted internally by Bell’s Workplace Practices Team, looked into a grievance filed by an employee at the CTV News Toronto newsroom alleging a co-worker would regularly make comments that were “sexual in nature and inappropriate” to the person filing the grievance. The grievance said the harassment continued after she asked him to stop.
The first arbitration hearing was held in May 2021 and the decision was released the following November.
The investigation initially concluded that the allegations of sexual harassment were unfounded, but the union representing the workers challenged Bell’s findings. An independent arbitrator ultimately ordered the company to compensate the victim for pain and suffering.
For the CP24 investigation, Bell Media hired Quebec-based consulting firm Relais Expert-Conseil, which specializes in workplace investigations and dispute management, to speak privately with employees about workplace culture and their relationships with other staff and managers in February 2021.
The findings, which were circulated to staff three months later, contained mixed results. While the outside firm concluded that “CP24 is a well-oiled machine” with a “climate of trust amongst peers and co-workers,” it also referred to the newsroom as a “stressful environment” with “yelling, raised voices and outbursts.”
The review, which followed multiple rounds of layoffs, also found that employees saw career opportunities as “scarce.”
Several Bell Media employees and former employees who spoke with the Star on the condition of anonymity have described an office culture at CP24 and CTV News where morale was low and staff were made to feel interchangeable. Several former anchors described instances where senior managers, including then-CP24 general manager Michael Melling, told them they were “replaceable.”
“It was no secret that Melling regularly told people that viewers watched shows because of the brand of the show, not because of the people, and that the people were replaceable,” said Priya Sam, a former news anchor with CTV News Atlantic who also worked in the CP24 building.
Not long after the third-party review concluded, Melling was promoted to head of CTV News.
In a response to the Star’s requests for comment, Melling said he has “always been committed to a respectful workplace.”
“Serious and damaging anonymous allegations about me have been made or published in recent days that are categorically not true, including but not limited to accusations that age, gender, or hair colour have been factors in recent events. Major organizational changes are always thoroughly reviewed and approved before proceeding,” said Melling.
Mirko Bibic, president and chief executive officer of Bell Canada, said in a statement Friday that Melling was taking leave from his job, effective immediately “pending the outcome of the workplace review” announced by the company in the wake of the LaFlamme controversy.
In an email from Bell Media, a spokesperson told the Star that “third party independent workplace assessments are a best practice in most organizations — including at Bell Media — in order to ensure a safe and inclusive work environment.”
“If the findings of our assessments reveal issues, they are promptly addressed,” the company said.
More than a year since the CP24 review was concluded, Bell Media is again launching an independent workplace review following the ousting of long-time news anchor LaFlamme from CTV National News, one of the most-watched newscasts in the country.
The review was announced a day after an internal town-hall meeting last week, where employees complained of low morale and pushed Melling and senior vice-president Karine Moses to explain LaFlamme’s departure.
“Morale in the newsroom has been horrible for months,” one employee told the managers in the town hall, a recording of which was obtained by the Star. “We’ve been bleeding staff. I can name at least a dozen people who’ve left. If this is a company so keen on promoting mental health, why is no one checking on the mental health of its own staff?”
In the sexual harassment investigation, the complainant filed a grievance in line with Bell’s workplace violence and harassment policy against a colleague she worked closely with.
The arbitration decision says the male employee made comments and engaged in behaviour that the complainant considered sexual and inappropriate. The complaint was referred to Bell’s Workplace Practices Team.
The investigation found that the allegations of sexual harassment were “unfounded on a balance of probabilities.”
The union challenged the findings and the independent arbitrator, named as Ian Anderson, agreed.
“Having reviewed the report, heard from the Grievor and considered the representations of counsel, I disagree with the conclusions of the Investigation … I find that (the subject of the complaint’s) behaviour towards the Grievor constituted sexual harassment contrary to the Employer’s policies, the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canada Labour Code,” Anderson writes.
The arbitration decision directs Bell to pay her $5,000 in damages for pain and suffering and to not pursue any form of reprisal against the complainant for her grievance.
Randy Kitt, with Unifor, the union that represents editorial staff at CFTO-DT (also known as CTV Toronto or Channel 9), called Bell’s handling of grievances an “imperfect system.”
He said the union was aware employees were filing complaints with the company in late 2020 and that they immediately approached Bell about the complaints and was told they were launching an investigation.
Kitt said he couldn’t comment on the investigation’s findings or Melling being promoted after complaints were made about him, but said he hopes the complaints show how important it is for employees to come forward if they’re experiencing workplace harassment.
“We had a system that’s broken, or in this case the system didn’t work. And through the grievance procedure, we got justice and the harassment stopped,” Kitt said.
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh