Former Rideau Hall employees consider legal options following report into toxic work environment

Multiple former employees say they’re considering legal options in the wake of a blistering report into claims former governor general Julie Payette created a toxic workplace culture at Rideau Hall, verbally harassed staff and engaged in some cases of unwanted physical contact.

Other former staff members who left jobs at Rideau Hall said they are now actively trying to return to the institution. Rideau Hall is encouraging employees who left during Payette’s mandate to contact human resources to see if they could be considered for positions.

Lawyers specializing in employment issues say the federal government’s directive on resolution of workplace harassment and violence states it must ensure “the well-being of the workplace is restored.”

Ottawa labour lawyer Sean McGee said that could include compensating employees for negative health impacts, lost wages and changes to their employment. 

“The directive says that the person in charge has to fix the problem,” said McGee with RavenLaw. “Arguably for anybody who’s affected by this conduct, I think they’d have a reasonable basis to say ‘I’m one of the people who suffered a detrimental impact. And I have a right to to be made whole.'”

‘Reign of terror’

Payette and her long-time friend and second-in-command Assunta Di Lorenzo resigned last week after receiving copies of an independent review into claims they mistreated staff.

The government released a heavily redacted copy of the independent report Wednesday night under the Access to Information Act which included allegations from staff members of “yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations.”

WATCH | Former employees say they’re relieved after Julie Payette’s resignation:

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette and her secretary, Assunta di Lorenzo, are resigning after an outside workplace review of Rideau Hall found that the pair presided over a toxic work environment. Former employees and public servants described to CBC News a sense of relief after the resignations. 4:23

Some participants spoke about a “reign of terror.” The report said 17 participants in the review said they left their jobs at Rideau Hall because of the hostile environment and 13 reported they took sick leave. Complainants said they observed at least 16 staff leave and the departures “undermined morale” and staff confidence.

The Privy Council Office (PCO) triggered a third-party workplace review two days after a CBC News story in July. Quintet Consulting, the company that conducted the review, concluded there was a “serious problem” with working conditions at Rideau Hall that required “immediate attention” from the PCO.

As of Jan. 26, PCO said it wasn’t aware of any lawsuits stemming from Payette’s treatment of staff. 

Quintet’s report found that the toxic work environment at Rideau Hall was said to have existed for years and could take just as much time to heal. 

Over the past six months, CBC News has spoken to more than 20 former Rideau Hall employees and public servants who said they either experienced mistreatment first hand or witnessed it. 

Some sources said they experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Others went on antidepressants or sick leave, said multiple former employees.

Responses from former staff

Many staff members felt their only option was to quietly leave prestigious jobs at Rideau Hall because they felt there was no other way to escape the treatment, several former employees told CBC News on condition their names remain confidential so as not to hinder their future job prospects. 

One former employee said they broke down crying the day after Payette’s resignation. For the first time, they said they realized they were a victim.

Another staff member described shaking all day when they heard the news last week and memories of the alleged emotional abuse came flooding back. This individual said they’ve lost their drive at their new workplace and most days feel numb. 

Some former staffers said the treatment ate away at their confidence and self-worth to the point where their personalities became unrecognizable to their loved ones.

WATCH | Complaints of unwanted physical contact made against Payette, sources say:

The complaints about former governor general Julie Payette made in an official report include instances when anger turned to unwanted physical contact, sources tell CBC News. 2:03

Payette issued a statement when she announced her resignation. She said she welcomed the workplace review and encouraged people to take part.

“While no formal complaints or official grievances were made during my tenure, which would have immediately triggered a detailed investigation as prescribed by law and the collective agreements in place, I still take these allegations very seriously,” said Payette on Jan. 21. “We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions.”

Collateral damage potentially ‘massive,’ lawyer says

Lawyers specializing in employment issues said the federal government’s options for responding to the harassment include a joint workplace assessment, reprisals, implementing recommendations from the investigator’s report, and potentially getting a labour relations specialist involved. 

Ottawa employment lawyer Tracy Lyle said workers shouldn’t be ashamed about what they experienced; and they have legal options. 

“There’s no doubt … that everyone has the right to a safe and hostile-free, violence-free workplace,” said Lyle with Nelligan Law. “Individuals are going to have various rights to get a remedy that is suited to them.”

WATCH | Complaints of unwanted physical contact made against Payette, sources say:

An independent report examining the workplace culture at the office of former governor general Julie Payette details allegations of ‘aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations.’ John Fraser of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada says the allegations coming out of Rideau Hall are ‘a tragedy’ for the country. 7:29

Remedies could include accommodations for suffering from PTSD if staff need more time off work. Some may not want to return to work at all, said Lyle. Others could seek compensation for lost wages, she added. 

Depending on whether they’re unionized, current workers or those who recently departed, will have different options. Those include grievances through their union or complaints under the Canada Labour Code for mental suffering or other issues, she said. 

“They might have a claim for constructive dismissal and they’ll be looking at income loss,” said Lyle. Under the grievance process, she said, “there’s certainly a way to get damages.” 

Quintet’s final report recommend the PCO “act quickly and decisively” to increase oversight of Rideau Hall until the work environment is demonstrably improved. The report also recommends employees at Rideau Hall should be thanked for their participation in the review with a commitment that their concerns will be addressed in a meaningful way.

‘Humpty dumpty’ phase

Following Wednesday’s report, Ottawa workplace harassment investigator Jennifer White said the “humpty dumpty” part of the process comes next; it should involve the government picking up the pieces to repair the damage.

White is not involved with the case at Rideau Hall, but has investigated similar situations in other workplaces.  

Even though Payette and Di Lorenzo are gone, White expects there will be a lot of tension in the workplace. 

“I am certain that the governor general does have supporters within the ranks,” said White. 

A divide could form between those who supported Payette’s leadership and those who didn’t, White said. More employees could also choose to leave.

WATCH | Complaints of unwanted physical contact made against Payette, sources say:

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh responds to the latest claims against former governor general Julie Payette. CBC News has learned from several sources that Payette’s verbal harassment of Rideau Hall staff crossed over into instances of physical contact. 1:26

If she was investigating this case, White said she would try to find out why none of the 92 people who took part in the external workplace review with Quintet Consulting filed formal complaints during Payette’s time in office. 

“Why is it that none of these people felt comfortable enough to bring forward a formal complaint?” said White.

She said fixing this system is critical for moving forward. 

The report said Rideau Hall employees felt that they had no way to express their concerns and believed HR practices at the institution to be inadequate. Staff said they had no way to report the “really unhealthy” environment other than to speak to the media. 

Some members of Rideau Hall management told Quintet that reports of harassment “predated the current mandate.” Managers said they have taken steps to address employee wellbeing in recent years.  

Managers also pledged to implement new measures, including adopting a harassment prevention policy and holding a session to better understand employees concerns, the report said.

Rideau Hall said in a statement to CBC News that it’s offering “additional support services” to any staff “having difficulties arising from events” at the office.

Union blames ‘culture of suppression’ at Rideau Hall 

Kevin King, national president for the Union of National Employees said a “culture of suppression” is to blame. His union represents about 100 workers at Rideau Hall including those involved in internal communications, maintaining the grounds and housekeeping.

“The culture was so suppressed there that any complaint would be surmised to have been met by further retaliatory tactics,” King told CBC News.

King said the workplace “needs to be restored” moving forward. He met with the Privy Council Office after CBC’s report in July and has another meeting booked in the next month.

“From my vantage point we recognize the PTSD, people using sick leave, the psychological harm from those who came forward,” he said. “These issues need to be addressed.”

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