​Management within Nunavut's court services division says the findings of a toxic workplace investigation may have been a result of "systemic investigator bias."

In a formal response to the investigation — which found Nunavut's court services unit is a toxic workplace — management acknowledged the working conditions within the court registries were "less than ideal" and that morale was low, but says there were "a number of methodological failings" to reach the report's conclusion.

Namely, management says not all staff members were interviewed, those interviewed were pre-selected by the investigators, and a number of long-term managers were not given a chance to defend themselves against the accusations.

CBC News obtained the response through an Access to Information request, which also showed management sought recourse against current and former government of Nunavut employees, who weighed into CBC's initial story on social media.

'Unsubstantiated claims'

The toxic workplace investigation found "destructive" gossip, favouritism, micromanaging, and a lack of leadership and trust was prevalent within Nunavut's court registries.

But the management's formal response to the report takes issue with the report's vagueness in not highlighting specific examples to back up the claims.

Informally, court services director Joe Kucharski had his own concerns with the report. In an email to deputy justice minister Bill MacKay, Kucharski called the report "biased and one sided."

"The report is too poorly written and many of the findings in the report are serious allegations that without any facts reported or any specific context it makes it difficult to address in the workplace," Kucharski wrote.

The formal management response, which was reviewed and approved by Nunavut Chief Justice Neil Sharkey, also said the report failed to identify contributing factors out of management's control — pointing to disgruntled employees as one of those factors.

"At the time of the investigation there were a group of front-line employees that had become dissatisfied with their working conditions and had 'grouped' up in an effort to annoy and obstruct [court registry] supervisors while promoting gossip and engaged in unprofessional conduct in an effort to undermine management," the response read.

"Since this time many of the employees that engaged in unprofessional and counterproductive behaviour have left Courts for positions outside of the division and/or the GN and the current work environment has improved significantly."

Turnover, lack of training a factor

Other factors court management said was out of its control included a high vacancy rate, a slow hiring process, a lack of formalized training, and a poor organizational structure within the court registries where, until recently, frontline staff were in acting supervisory roles to fill vacancies, without having the proper experience to do the job.

"Rotating acting assignments tend to cause conflict, as it often is the case the employees will end up supervising each other at different times," the report read.

"This is not conducive to a proper reporting and oversight structure."

Court management also said the report omitted some positive steps they've taken since the investigation to improve morale in the office — the investigation was held from May 1 to June 30, 2017, but the final report wasn't released until November.

"The report, in its entirety, fails to acknowledge any process improvements that were made to redress morale and supervisory issues," the response read.

Court management did agree to adopt most of the recommendations within the report, but in many of them said it couldn't respond to the recommendations without "factual information."

First investigation of its kind

While workplace harassment issues have made headlines and have been raised in Nunavut's Legislature in the last couple years, the toxic workplace investigation into Nunavut's court services is the first and only time, since at least 2015, the government has gone to such lengths.

"The complaints we've had previously haven't been related to a toxic work environment. They've been an individual, or an instance of behaviour," said Alma Power, Nunavut's associate deputy minister of Human Resources.

"[The court services investigation] actually came about because the individual did make a harassment complaint. That was investigated and not found to be harassment, but found to perhaps have a toxic work environment that needed to be investigated."

Alma Power

Alma Power, Nunavut's associate deputy minister of Human Resources, says the government has increased its training on respect in the workplace. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Last year the government received 37 internal harassment complaints, the most since 2014. Of those, 17 complaints were investigated while the others didn't warrant an investigation — three cases were resolved before the investigation began.

Of the remaining 14 complaints investigated last year, 10 were declared unfounded. Power says the findings have been more related to workplace conflict than harassment.

Nunavut harassment stats

Harassment complaint statistics within the Government of Nunavut. Officials say most complaints are found to be workplace conflict. (Government of Nunavut)

"We've gone to outside investigators to ensure there's more impartiality in the investigations, so we do find it's more conflict-related. So we're going to have to deal with that going forward," Power said.

The government has pushed more "respect in the workplace" training for all government employees, which Power says has helped educate people on how to deal with perceived harassment.

"We haven't found that many instances of harassment, but our complaints have gone up," she said. "So people are aware of the process, which is good."

Social media posts flagged

The internal emails also show the Justice Department mulled over how to address remarks being made on social media from current and former employees.

Kucharski pointed to the aforementioned dissatisfied employees who he says were making "adverse remarks" on social media about court management and the toxic workplace report's findings.

"This behaviour could, if proven to be factual, could be breaches of their respective employment offices (GN, Government of Canada etc)," Kucharsi wrote in an email. 

Adrienne Silk, one of the GN's top in-house lawyers, replied saying there wasn't much the GN could do to employees who didn't work there anymore. But she advised that current employees should be reminded of the government's code of values and ethics, which limits what employees can say publicly.

"This rule will apply to comments posted in widely read platforms such as Facebook. Having said that, simply sharing publicly available information, or venting legitimate frustrations with workplace dysfunction will typically not meet the threshold for wrongdoing," Silk wrote.

"In order to step over the line, an employee will have engaged in personal attacks, on the GN or officers of the GN, that would reasonably lead someone to distrust the GN or doubt the ability of the public service or an individual within it to be impartial or effective."

Government stands by toxic workplace finding

In response to the court management's remarks, Nunavut's Finance Department stood by the toxic workplace report, saying it's now focusing on moving forward.

Deputy Justice Minister Bill MacKay said his department welcomed the report and is working on an action plan to address the recommendations in it.

"We're focused on the recommendations," MacKay said. "The recommendations and the findings were somewhat concerning to us. So we're following up with staff to get more details on what the problems are and how we can best address them."

Bill MacKay

Deputy Justice Minister Bill MacKay says his department is working on an action plan to address the report's recommendations (David Gunn/CBC)

Nunavut's new justice minister, Jeannie Ehaloak, also weighed in, saying she takes the recommendations seriously.

"Working together through good communication and a clear understanding of our duties and obligations to each other as colleagues and public servants, we will ensure a positive and healthy workplace across the government," Ehaloak said.