Psychologists speaking to Rideau Hall staff following harassment claims

The office of the Governor General is bringing in psychologists to speak to employees following claims of workplace harassment and verbal abuse coming from the top.

'I’m hoping this is part of a bigger undertaking,' says workplace bullying expert

Rideau Hall is offering meetings with psychologists for its staff amid allegations Gov. Gen. Julie Payette has created a toxic work environment. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The office of the Governor General is bringing in psychologists specializing in workplace stress to speak to employees following reports of workplace harassment and verbal abuse coming from the top.

CBC News reported last month Gov. General Julie Payette has created a toxic work environment and a culture of fear at Rideau Hall by routinely berating and humiliating staff. Her second-in-command, Assunta Di Lorenzo, is also accused of insulting and bullying employees. More than 20 sources including former employees have told CBC News about harassment at Rideau Hall. 

In a memo obtained by CBC News, the human resources department at Rideau Hall notified all staff on Wednesday that two psychologists will hold virtual meetings with employees next week as an introduction, to be followed by optional, one-on-one phone sessions.

"You can then contact whichever one you choose directly," reads the memo. "Counselling sessions will be private and confidential."

A source with direct knowledge of the inner workings of Rideau Hall said the introductory meeting, over Zoom, is also optional. The source expressed concern that employees might not be comfortable having to attend a group meeting in order to get a psychologist's phone number.

Separately, the Privy Council Office (PCO) has, in a rare move, put the office of the Governor General under review, following CBC's report, which said waves of staff have left their jobs over concerns for their well-being. The PCO is hiring a third party to do the review, which will involve interviewing current and former employees. 

The Governor General's office said the psychologists are "not part of the review by PCO, but is a reflection of our strong commitment to our employees."

"It was felt that employees could benefit from additional support as they manage various stresses related to the ongoing pandemic and recent news coverage," said Natalie Babin Dufresne, the director of communications at Rideau Hall, in a statement to CBC News.

'Constantly improving'

Carleton University's Ruth McKay, who specializes in workplace bullying, hopes offering sessions with psychologists is part of a larger plan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau selected Payette in 2017 and has since faced questions about the vetting process. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

"I'm hoping this is part of a bigger undertaking because not everybody wants to talk to psychologists," said McKay, who is not involved in the situation at Rideau Hall. "That implies in some measure the problem might be simply interpersonal and not part of a larger organizational structure issue."

McKay says the reported problems at Rideau Hall should have never gotten to this point.

"Problems shouldn't get so far as to be in the media to precipitate action," she said. "The best way is your addressing it much earlier in the system." 

After the original story broke, Payette's press secretary Ashlee Smith said the Governor General's office "strongly believes in the importance of a healthy workplace, we have taken many steps to foster this, we will continue to do so and will work at constantly improving."

Smith defended Rideau Hall's human resources process and said no formal complaints regarding harassment have been made. 

But in one four-month period, roughly two dozen people informally reported abusive conduct by Payette or Di Lorenzo to management, according to government sources. Sources claim concerns went nowhere and called it a closed-loop system that all filtered through Di Lorenzo, who is at the top of the organizational chart for the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General, and accused by some of being part of the problem.

An annual government survey last year appears to support the claims and shows 22 per cent of respondents working for Rideau Hall claimed to have experienced harassment. Of those employees, 74 per cent attributed it to individuals with authority over them.

McKay hopes the psychologists are experts in workplace bullying and harassment. She stresses it's important for Rideau Hall to examine its organizational policy and reporting mechanism along with training for both staff and management. She points to Alberta Health Services as an example worth following. The health department accepts complaints confidentially online that are vetted and problems can be addressed quickly.

Payette told her staff in a memo that she's listening to their concerns and called on them to "stay united."

"Rest assured that I take workplace harassment very seriously and fully support the review of our practices and the continuation of concrete actions to ensure a healthy and safe work environment for everyone, at all times and in all circumstances," Payette told staff in the memo on July 31.

Although Payette's role is mostly ceremonial, it can be important during a minority government. Payette is bound by constitutional convention to follow the advice of the prime minister if the PM requests a dissolution or prorogation of Parliament, but she is empowered to dismiss a government that has been defeated on a vote of confidence if it refuses to step aside.

Ashley Burke can be reached at ashley.burke@cbc.ca


Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with the CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa who focuses on enterprise journalism for television, radio and digital platforms. She won the prestigious Charles Lynch Award and was a finalist for the Michener Award for her exclusive reporting on the toxic workplace at Rideau Hall. She has also uncovered rampant allegations of sexual misconduct in the Canadian military. Her beats include transport, defence and federal government accountability. You can reach her confidentially by email: ashley.burke@cbc.ca or https://www.cbc.ca/securedrop/