Public servant slams response to harassment claim

A Gatineau, Que., woman says she was wrongfully dismissed after complaining about continual sexual harassment at her federal government job.

A Gatineau, Que., woman says she was wrongfully dismissed after complaining about continual sexual harassment at her federal government job.

Zabia Chamberlain worked as a director inside Human Resources and Skills Development Canada until, she says, chronic abuse from her director general forced her to leave her job. She says the department refused to transfer her to an equivalent job, away from the aggressor.

The department won't comment on her case. Since Chamberlain was in an executive position when the harassment occurred, she's not entitled to union representation.

Zabia Chamberlain said she made repeated efforts to find another position away from a supervisor she says repeatedly harassed her. ((CBC))

She's taken several complaints to the Public Service Labour Relations Board, but one grievance has already been dismissed on the grounds the board doesn't have jurisdiction. Chamberlain is appealing that decision in federal court.

She says the issue is now about much more than the initial harassment, but is also about the federal government's inaction and reaction.

Chamberlain, 44, worked for the federal government for more than 20 years, working her way up the career ladder. Her family came to Ottawa from Trinidad in the 1970s and she's proud of her accomplishments. 

"I remember beautiful years," says Chamberlain. "It was pretty much half my life."

But she says those good memories are now overshadowed by what she calls abuse from her immediate supervisor, a director general.

Alleged problems began in 2007

In the fall of 2007, Chamberlain was seconded to a director position in the Skills and Employment branch at HRSDC. Chamberlain says her boss regularly intruded into her personal space, with inappropriate touching, pushing himself against her and rubbing her shoulders.

"I don't know what his intentions were, but this seemed to be fun for him. And I was easy prey. I really felt violated. I felt the violation of sexual impropriety and I started asking him to stand back from me. I thought maybe there may have been something wrong with him at times."

Through tears, with shaking hands, Chamberlain explains the harassment didn't end there. She says he would sometimes fly into a rage and storm into her office.

"It was so volatile. He came into my office and slammed the door so loud, it's the loudest sound I've ever heard. He swore. Don't you ever F---ing do that again."

She says she asked her boss not to raise his voice or touch her. Then Chamberlain started applying for other jobs inside the public service. She says she had a lot of responsibilities so she was working long hours. She started losing weight and having nightmares.

Several of Chamberlain's co-workers say they witnessed harassment. Some felt bullied themselves by the same manager. Several have written sworn affidavits, documenting what they saw, heard and experienced.

Yelling forced nearby worker to relocate

"This loud behaviour became a habit of at least once a week," writes one public servant who witnessed Chamberlain's supervisor yelling and swearing at her.

"As I have been diagnosed with sporadic epilepsy attacks and panic attacks, I could not bear to hear it anymore. I started worrying about her so I talked to my manager and it was agreed that I would be relocated about 50 feet away. This would resolve me hearing what was going on, but my manager never mentioned Zabia."

Chamberlain said she has taken to singing and playing piano as a means of dealing with anxiety and stress since leaving her job in 2008. ((CBC))

This witness writes that she was later told by a supervisor if she wanted to advance in government she should be quiet about Chamberlain's boss.

Chamberlain alleged the harassment began in October 2007, and after several months she lodged an official complaint in April 2008. She took the allegations to the assistant deputy minister of the division, Karen Jackson.

As a solution, emails show Jackson asked Chamberlain to come to the table and mediate with her supervisor. Chamberlain says Jackson told her the director general needed to learn from this. But by this point, Chamberlain says she was afraid of her supervisor and refused to participate in mediation.

"I didn't know at the time, inside all I could think was I can't do this. I can't see this person. I had stopped going to lunch because I was afraid of seeing him on the elevator, because he was always going down for cigarettes and stuff," remembers Chamberlain.

Finally, nine months after being seconded to the executive position, Chamberlain asked the assistant deputy minister to move her to an equivalent job or another department so she didn't have to work with the aggressor.

"I talked to the internal mediator who was a manager. I told her, he's always on me. I can't fend him off. Please move me. Protect my [executive status]."

CBC has obtained a copy of the report Jackson filed after an internal investigation. She focused on a couple of issues and incidents involving the director general.

Using his initials only, her report reads:  "JA behaved improperly and he should have known that his behaviour would cause offence and harm…JA's behaviour in this instance is defined as harassment under the Government of Canada's policy on harassment in the workplace."

Supervisors say 'corrective measures' taken

Jackson goes on to write: "There is sufficient evidence and substantiation of a pattern of behaviour to conclude that JA intruded into Zabia Chamberlain's personal space…There is evidence of JA speaking loudly and in an aggressive tone of voice. It should be noted that JA is at least sufficiently aware of his loudness and excitability that when it is brought to his attention, he adjusts his behaviour."

In subsequent emails, Jackson tells Chamberlain she has "taken corrective measures" and considers "the matter closed." Chamberlain was never told what those corrective measures were. She'd learn from co-workers that her supervisor received coaching. He remains on an upward career track as an executive in the public service.

Chamberlain went on leave in May 2008 and has never returned. She has since gone on disability leave due to what her doctor calls Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Officials offered Chamberlain the opportunity to return to her lower-level position, away from the office in which she'd suffered the harassment, in the fall of 2009, but she refused.

She said they told her if she wanted the role she'd been filling she'd have to compete for it, but the man who had harassed her was in charge of the hiring process.

Chamberlain was removed from her executive role and sent a record of employment. She calls it a wrongful dismissal. Chamberlain says she can't explain her treatment.

"I think it's because they took a lot of missteps and it was too much for them to back track and say they're sorry."

During the complaints process, Chamberlain was asked by government officials to sign a form, claiming the abuser was a third party, meaning he didn't work for the government.

Third party form unusual: lawyer

CBC has a copy of this letter and form. Chamberlain refused to sign it. In fact, she questions its legality.

"The third party is not an employee of the Crown. This person is not a third party. He is a paid, permanent, federal employee, a senior executive," notes Chamberlain.

Paul Champ, an Ottawa lawyer who takes on many federal government harassment cases each year, says this third party form is exceptional.

"In almost any context, including the federal public service, if a manager or supervisor has done something to wrong or harms an employee, the employer is responsible, ultimately, so it's very rare you'd see an employer trying to avoid liability in that fashion."

The most recent Public Service employee survey from 2008 showed 31 per cent of women and 25 per cent men reported having been the victim of harassment in the previous two years.

Only 46 per cent of women said that they were satisfied with how their department or agency responded to the complaint.