Politics

Privy Council Office launches workplace probe of Governor General's office over harassment claims

The Privy Council Office (PCO) has launched what it says will be a "thorough, independent and impartial" workplace probe into claims of harassment and verbal abuse in the office of Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

Review follows CBC News report that Payette created toxic environment at Rideau Hall

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette speaks in Ottawa on March 16, 2018. The country's top bureaucratic office has launched an independent review after sources told CBC News that Payette has created a toxic environment at Rideau Hall. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The Privy Council Office (PCO) has launched what it says will be a "thorough, independent and impartial" workplace probe into claims of harassment and verbal abuse in the office of Gov. Gen. Julie Payette.

The investigation follows a CBC News report that quoted unnamed sources saying Payette has created a toxic environment at Rideau Hall by verbally harassing employees to the point where some have been reduced to tears or have left the office altogether.

A dozen sources with direct knowledge of the office during Payette's mandate told CBC News the Governor General has yelled at, belittled and publicly humiliated employees. They accuse her of throwing tantrums in the office and, on one occasion, tossing an employee's work aside and calling it "shit."

Sources also accused Payette's secretary and longtime friend, Assunta Di Lorenzo, of harassing employees — calling some "lazy" and "incompetent."

"Harassment has no place in any professional workplace," PCO spokesperson Stéphane Shank said in the statement. "It is a public service priority to advance efforts to more effectively prevent and resolve issues of harassment."

The PCO statement said the Governor General's office is part of the core public service and is subject to Treasury Board policies, which include a policy against harassment.

PCO said the office is establishing the "terms of reference" of the review and will take steps immediately to hire an independent third party to conduct it.

Payette said in a statement she welcomes an independent review.

"I am deeply concerned with the media reports regarding the Office of the Governor General and I am completely committed to ensuring that every employee who works at Rideau Hall enjoys a secure and healthy work environment at all times and under all circumstances," Payette said. "I take harassment and workplace issues very seriously."

Former employees must be interviewed, say sources

Sources — including former employees — told CBC News they're relieved they can finally speak up about their treatment. They said they've been living in a culture of fear and the external review will only be legitimate if former employees are interviewed. 

At least two waves of employees have left the office in response to the verbal abuse, multiple sources have said. Others have taken leaves of absence.

Watch | Cabinet ministers support the Rideau Hall workplace investigation

Social development minister Ahmed Hussen and Middle Class Prosperity minister Mona Fortier spoke with reporters at an Ottawa daycare on Friday. 1:18

Sources describe the atmosphere at Rideau Hall this week as heavy and tense. Ombudsman of Mental Health for Small Departments and Agencies Gilles Moreau held a zoom call with employees at the Governor General's office Thursday to tell them about the services available.

"I provide a safe space where employees can raise their workplace issues without fear of reprisal and explore options to resolve them. I help and support employees while also raising organizational awareness of systemic issues and trends, and help effect change," Moreau told CBC News.

Moreau can't register complaints or launch investigations — that's outside of his mandate. If the ombudsman discovers a systemic problem, he can propose recommendations to senior officials — including Di Lorenzo, who is herself accused of bullying. Former employees have called it a closed-loop system that's all filtered back through Di Lorenzo and say feel their complaints in the past haven't lead to change. 

Di Lorenzo promised to improve working conditions in the Governor General's office just hours after CBC News reported on multiple allegations of harassment by the vice-regal.

Earlier Thursday, the head of a union representing civil service workers called for an independent examination of the employees' claims.

The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) represents approximately 80 employees at Rideau Hall, including kitchen workers, cleaners, and maintenance and communications staff.

"Any claims of verbal abuse or harassment in the workplace are a top priority for the union to address," said PSAC national president Chris Aylward.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister's Office said in an emailed statement that Justin Trudeau takes the issue very seriously.

"Harassment in the workplace is unacceptable under any circumstance and our government is committed to ensuring a safe work environment for all federal employees," said PMO spokesperson Alex Wellstead.

Watch | Scheer says every employee has the right to work in a harassment-free workplace

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer said he wouldn't comment specifically on the Rideau Hall investigation. 1:18

With files from Kristen Everson

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