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Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui Accused of Workplace Toxicity and Retaliation Ahead of Council Elections

The Boston Globe published an investigation Monday containing allegations from eight women that Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui created a hostile workplace environment.
The Boston Globe published an investigation Monday containing allegations from eight women that Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui created a hostile workplace environment. By Claire Yuan
By Muskaan Arshad, Crimson Staff Writer

Updated: October 17, 2023, at 6:08 p.m.

Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui is facing allegations that she fostered a “toxic” workplace environment for her staff, as reported in a six-month Boston Globe investigation released on Monday — just weeks ahead of Cambridge’s City Council elections.

Eight women who worked for Siddiqui since 2017 alleged a culture of toxicity and retaliation under her leadership, referencing disparaging personal comments from Siddiqui and acts of professional retaliation that “jeopardized their future job prospects,” according to the Globe.

Of the eight staffers, six remained anonymous “for fear the mayor would hinder their careers or credibility,” the Globe reported.

Two former staff spoke on the record about the Mayor’s behavior, including Theo M. Skeadas ’12 — a former campaign manager for Siddiqui — and former mayoral aide and Council candidate Adrienne Klein.

In an emailed statement to The Crimson Tuesday, Siddiqui wrote that she was “surprised by the one sided nature” of the Globe article.

“I have many employees past and present, who consider my style of management collaborative and respectful. I strongly reject any notion that I have ever created a toxic workplace,” Siddiqui wrote.

“The specific accusations referenced in the article are mischaracterizations, most of them levelled anonymously, and motivated perhaps by politics,” she added. “However, I take any concern as an opportunity to reflect and improve my supervisory skills. I have high standards, both personally and professionally, and I have learned a great deal as a manager over the past six years on how to most constructively provide and accept feedback.”

Siddiqui was first elected to the Council in 2017. After winning a second term in 2019, Siddiqui was unanimously chosen as mayor — becoming the first Muslim mayor in Massachusetts. She is currently serving her second term as mayor and third term on the council after being reelected in 2021. Siddiqui is seeking a fourth term on the Council this year.

Skeadas, who formerly worked for Siddiqui, said in the article that during her time as Siddiqui’s campaign manager, she was treated poorly. Skeadas, who ran for Council in 2021, also told the Globe that she learned Siddiqui made disparaging remarks about her to others, which she said had a role in her 2021 election loss.

“Over the years, many individuals — predominantly young people of color from immigrant families — have approached me to express frustration, grief, and anxiety about the relentless abuse they felt they were experiencing from Sumbul,” Skeadas added in a Monday interview with The Crimson.

According to the Globe, Klein’s run for Council has also faced obstacles due to Siddiqui. Earlier this year, Klein was required to step away from her role as Siddiqui’s director of constituent services after the city instituted a new policy requiring city employees to either resign or go on unpaid leave.

City Manager Yi-An Huang ’05 told the Globe in July that the policy change was made after Siddiqui asked “that we look into this.”

Klein, the sole breadwinner of her household, said in an interview with The Crimson in September that the policy felt “personally targeted” toward her as she was the only affected candidate.

Concerned that Siddiqui might retaliate against her, Klein contacted human resources before launching her campaign, she told the Globe.

Klein said in a Monday interview with The Crimson that she spoke to the Globe because “It’s really important to me that I use my privilege to speak up and speak out whenever I can.”

“So many that I worked with weren’t able to because of fear of retaliation,” Klein said.

Other concerns were brought up by former staffers who asked the Globe to remain anonymous, including allegations that Siddiqui ignored an employee’s scheduled vacation days, targeted one individual by bringing her desserts and telling her to “fatten up,” and sent an aggrieved email to a former aide’s new employer, calling the hiring “deeply disrespectful,” according to the Globe.

Others who work with Siddiqui defended her against the allegations in the Globe article.

Siddiqui’s education and policy director Ammarah Rehman told the Globe that “it’s a challenging position, but the challenges aren’t created by her,” citing the fast-paced work environment instead.

In her statement to the Globe, Siddiqui denied disparaging Skeadas and said she was not involved in creating the policy that ended up requiring Klein to take a leave, and did not retaliate against employees that resigned.

According to the Globe, Siddiqui and her supporters also suggested the timing of the accusations was politically motivated, given the proximity to Election Day.

Klein disagreed with that sentiment during the interview Monday, noting that “the story has been in the process of being written for months.”

“It’s really about making sure workplaces treat us fairly, and are places where we can grow and feel valued,” Klein said.

Siddiqui’s rivals in the Council campaign and her fellow councilors largely had not publicly commented on the allegations as of Monday night.

Councilor Quinton Y. Zondervan, who is not seeking reelection, told the Globe that he did not know enough to speak on dynamics within Siddiqui’s staff.

“I hope that if there are issues with her management style then those can be addressed and that she can continue to be a great leader, because we need people like her to be in leadership positions,” he said.

Candidate Robert Winters, whose own campaign has been marked by controversy, decried the state of local politics in light of the news in a post on his blog, the Cambridge Civic Journal.

“How does it make you feel, Madame Mayor, to have your political rivals gang up on you several weeks before the municipal election?” Winters wrote. “Regardless of the merit or lack thereof in what is stated in the article, welcome to the sewer that Cambridge politics has become.”

—Staff writer Muskaan Arshad can be reached at muskaan.arshad@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @MuskaanArshad or on Threads @muskarshad.

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