'Hostile work environment': Former staff accuse Edmonton city councillor of bullying amid high office turnover

Postmedia spoke to five people who previously worked for the Ward Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi councillor at different points during her two-year council tenure and others inside city hall. They describe working with a boss who belittles, yells and makes unrealistic demands, who is overly preoccupied with her public image, and who lashes out at staff for her own struggles to balance her duties as a city councillor

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Edmonton city councillor Jennifer Rice is being accused by five former assistants of bullying, disorganization, and creating a “hostile work environment” within her office, one plagued by unusually high staff turnover.

Postmedia spoke to five people who previously worked for the Ward Ipiihkoohkanipiaohtsi councillor at different points during her two-year council tenure and others inside city hall. They describe working with a boss who belittles, yells and makes unrealistic demands, who is overly preoccupied with her public image, and who lashes out at staff for her own struggles to balance her duties as a city councillor. Her actions may explain why nearly three times as many people have worked for Rice than any other councillor this term.

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The councillor declined interview requests during the reporting of this story. In a statement to Postmedia late last week, Rice didn’t answer specific allegations, but said, “I’ve had wonderful staff who have made many positive contributions.”

“Some of my staff have received promotions and permanent opportunities, which working in my office has enabled,” the statement said.

A total of 19 people have worked for Rice since she was elected in 2021: 13 people were hired on contract and three worked as summer interns. Three administrative city staff also worked for Rice — no other councillor has required such support.

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Assistants worked for as few as two weeks, and others lasted only a couple of months before quitting or being let go. Since October 2021, no other councillor has worked with more than six employees, plus one summer intern. Two people have left Mayor Amarjeet Sohi’s office, one of whom retired.

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Postmedia also obtained an audio recording of a heated argument between Rice and a staffer in her office.

One person alleges Rice, in one case, forced her employees to work several hours of unscheduled overtime and refused to let them leave her office. Multiple people said the councillor’s actions harmed their mental health.

Multiple high-ranking city administrative staff, and members of city council, are aware of allegations of misconduct in Rice’s office, Postmedia has learned. 

Yelling and tears

Postmedia is using pseudonyms for Rice’s former assistants because they fear professional repercussions or retaliation. Five of them said she bullied people working in her office and elsewhere at the city. 

“The way she deals with (her office) creates a very hostile work environment,” one person, Green, said.

Multiple people allege Rice’s behaviour, including yelling or raising her voice, brought her own staff and other city workers to tears. One former assistant described “screaming sessions” with their boss. This person watched a colleague crying “on a regular basis” in Rice’s office because of “being yelled at.”

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“Yelling and belittling are her two methods of bullying,” Red said. “She’s broken down a few people.

Jennifer Rice
(left to right) Edmonton City Councillors Ashley Salvador, Tim Cartmell, Jennifer Rice, and Michael Janz take part in the first day of public hearings on potential changes to zoning bylaws, Monday Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

In an audio recording obtained by Postmedia, Rice is heard discussing an incident where she allegedly yelled at staff on multiple occasions, including once in a more public area of city hall.

In fact, Rice and one employee can be heard loudly arguing at points during the recording, raising their voices and speaking over one another. Rice tells the staff they need to say if she is yelling or raising her voice in the moment, not afterwards. She also accuses staff of making her “look like” a person who yells.

“Why did you not say right away? I never recognized that I yelled at you,” Rice said in the recording. “But what you did, you made me look like I’m that type of person. I’m not. I’m not that type of person, yelling at people, angry at people — no I’m not. If you think my voice increases and I yell, you let me know right away. Because I’m not (doing it) on purpose.”

Belittling staff, singling out and inappropriate comments

All five former staffers accuse the councillor of behaving in a belittling or demeaning manner. Two people said Rice instructed them to always walk behind and never in front of her.

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“I had to follow her around like a puppy,” Orange said. “She would let her sense of prestige dictate how she treats others and often that would come out as treating others as lowly, or not worth her time … (she) just made me feel like ‘Oh, I’m garbage’.”

“If you didn’t follow those rules, if you didn’t do those things, she would get very upset with you,” Green said.

Several former assistants said the councillor singled out people for praise to the detriment of others, pitted workers against each other, and would make inappropriate comments about what her employees were wearing, and would complain about how people looked.


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Keith Gerein: Edmonton Coun. Jennifer Rice has no one to blame but herself for her failures in office

Audio recording of Edmonton councillor Rice’s argument with staff reveals turmoil in office


Two people said Rice insisted they wear suits.

“Every day she wanted me in a suit so I looked good in front of the other councillors, despite no one else in the office (wearing one),” Blue said. “(She would say): ‘You have to look good as my staffer.’ Every single day. No casual Friday.”

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Some told Postmedia Rice’s actions impacted their mental health. One person said their heart raced constantly at work. They spoke to a doctor about potentially taking stress leave before they were let go.

Another described working for the councillor as “a constant beat down.” The stress, they said, impacted their personal life, including their sleep. “I was bringing so much stress home it was affecting my home life, and I wasn’t being paid very much,” Red said. “I can’t honestly say I had one happy or fulfilling day (there).”

Forced to work late

Being expected to often work several hours of overtime without prior notice was a common experience for multiple people, staff said. Some said Rice called or texted late in the evening, or became angry if they did not respond to emails after their shifts. When Postmedia contacted other councillors’ offices they indicated working evenings or weekends is almost always planned and this kind of unexpected overtime work, including calls or texts or emails, is unusual or doesn’t happen.

Green

In one case, Rice allegedly forced her assistants to work several hours late when she returned, furious, from a heated argument with a senior city official. A former assistant said when they became visibly upset Rice mocked them.

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“She just told us we couldn’t leave, but I knew it was my job (if I did),” Orange said. “I have never had anxiety that bad ever … I was so stressed.”

“Other councillors were walking by and I was looking at them with fear in my eyes, like ‘somebody say something.’”

A different former employee said Rice would lash out if motions she wanted to be prepared for council meetings did not satisfy her despite following conventions around how motions should be worded.

Blamed mistakes on staff

Postmedia also heard from staffers that Rice would blame them for her own errors and that she was routinely disorganized, often focusing on minor issues.

One recalls Rice getting angry with another staffer, blaming that person for losing something she couldn’t find.

“She found it on her desk, and instead of apologizing to (the staffer) … she just didn’t acknowledge her mistake at all,” Orange said.

“I couldn’t believe she gave her a mouthful, blamed her over and over again, and then had it the whole time.”

All five former assistants said Rice made demands that were impossible or impractical. They described scenarios where Rice was verbally abusive, questioned her employees’ competence, painted herself as a victim, or tried to use guilt if they could not deliver what she wanted or if she was already angry about something else.

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“She is always pulling staff into her office and scolding them like they are kindergartners,” Green said.

“She would say ‘Do you know how lucky you are for this opportunity?’ and she acted like I couldn’t get a job,” Orange said.

Edmonton city councillor Jennifer Rice
Councillor Jennifer Rice takes part in Edmonton City Council 2023-2026 capital budget deliberations, Friday Dec. 9, 2022. Photo by David Bloom /Postmedia

The former assistants said Rice spent an inordinate amount of time micromanaging small tasks which made it difficult to keep up with more important work. They felt as though Rice expected her employees to read her mind and would give inconsistent directions about what work to prioritize.

Because she spent so much time scrutinizing social media posts and trivial emails, her former assistants believed Rice was frequently unprepared for council meetings.

Staff said Rice often appeared that she didn’t understand what was “going on with council business.”

“She would ask me how she should vote,” Orange said. “She would be voting and not even know what’s going on.”

“She wanted to look like she knew what was going on … (she would say) ‘I want you to find good questions to ask in council, I want to talk’,” Blue said. “She would almost never be happy with them. So I’d have to stay up ’til 10 o’clock (writing).”

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At times she would make promises to constituents that she could not keep, they said. If staff told Rice a task was impossible or impractical, Rice would become upset and make comments suggesting their jobs were in jeopardy, they said.

Multiple people said there were regular arguments and confusion over her calendar or when Rice was unable to locate documents. In one case, the councillor allegedly fired an employee late at night when Rice couldn’t find papers placed on her desk several days prior.

“It was way past my working hours … I wasn’t willing to rush into city hall to help her find notes she had lost, and so I pushed back saying this is not appropriate,” Green said, adding after they didn’t come rushing back to help her with her crisis, “I got let go at midnight.”

Ego and paranoia

All of the former staffers said the mistreatment they endured was in part related to Rice’s preoccupation with her public image and paranoia.

“She’s a councillor, and she thought she was the president,” Red said.

“The best way I can describe Rice is that instead of wanting to do good, she wants to look good,” Blue said. “Anything she asks for, if you don’t do it (she said) ‘what is wrong with you, why are you doing this, I am above you.’ It’s that respect for authority thing.”

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One person said Rice treated assistants as subservient and would not introduce them by name at events. 

Multiple former staffers described Rice isolating them from others inside city hall and even her own office. They said the councillor worried about people in city hall knowing what was happening in her office.

“You are not allowed to speak or do anything in her office because as far as she’s concerned all the other councillors are spying on her and looking for ways to get her in trouble … She is super paranoid,” Green said. “We were basically not allowed to talk to anybody else.”

A different assistant said Rice refused to accept a summer intern, who was being paid by a grant obtained through the mayor’s office “because she thought they were spies for the mayor.”

Limited recourse

Asked what the city and city manager’s office can do about allegations or complaints arising from councillor’s offices, city clerk Aileen Giesbrecht told Postmedia council assistants are a unique subgroup of non-unionized City of Edmonton employees.

Their only recourse is to file a council code of conduct complaint to the integrity commissioner.

In her statement to Postmedia, Rice pointed to her record on council.

“My work on Council and in Ward activities is a matter of public record which speaks for itself: my constituents know that I vote in their best interests.”

– With files from Keith Gerein

[email protected]

@laurby

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