Second-in-command at Rideau Hall promises to improve work environment following GG harassment allegations

The second-in-command at Rideau Hall has sent a memo to staff promising to improve working conditions in the Governor General's office after CBC News reported allegations of harassment by the vice-regal.

Buckingham Palace has no comment about Julie Payette allegations; Liberal MPs call for an investigation

Governor General Julie Payette delivers the Throne Speech in the Senate chamber, Thursday, December 5, 2019 in Ottawa. Sources say 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. (The Canadian Press)

The second-in-command at Rideau Hall has sent a memo to staff promising to improve working conditions in the Governor General's office after CBC News reported on multiple allegations of harassment by the vice-regal.

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette's secretary and longtime friend, Assunta Di Lorenzo — the most senior manager in this branch of government — thanked staff for the work they've done so far and pledged to do more to protect workers in a workplace that has been described by sources as a "house of horrors."

"I want you to know that I, along with the Governor General and the entire management team, am deeply committed to fostering a healthy work environment," says the memo, obtained by CBC News.

"Please rest assured that the well-being of our employees remains our priority."

The email came just hours after a CBC News story quoted sources claiming Payette verbally harassed employees to the point where some were reduced to tears or left their jobs at the office altogether.

Di Lorenzo, a former corporate lawyer, is also accused of harassing employees and calling some "lazy" and "incompetent."

"This has gone from being one of the most collegial and enjoyable work environments for many of the staff to being a house of horrors," said one government source. "It's bullying and harassment at its worst."

A spokesperson for the Queen said Buckingham Palace had no comment on the matter.

"It's a matter for the GG's office," a spokesperson said.

Senior cabinet ministers and Liberal MPs told CBC today that the allegations levelled against Payette demand some sort of formal investigation.

Economic Development Minister Mélanie Joly said the claims about Payette in the workplace came as a "surprise."

"I value the work of the Governor General," Joly told reporters. "At the same time, as with every single workspace in this country, it has to be harassment-free and it has to be a place where people feel safe and happy.

"This is an issue that my colleagues will have to look into. People need to feel comfortable and, definitely, Rideau Hall will need to look into this very, very carefully."

In a media statement, the Privy Council Office said it's "very concerned about the allegations" and will be "following up on these reports."

"Harassment has no place in any professional workplace," said the PCO statement. "We take all questions of harassment very seriously.  It is a public service priority to advance efforts to more effectively prevent and resolve issues of harassment."

CBC spoke to a dozen sources with direct knowledge of the office environment during Payette's mandate. They spoke on the condition they not be named because they feared they could lose their jobs or their careers could suffer.

Concerns about accountability 

Di Lorenzo's memo, sent out Tuesday evening, doesn't deny the allegations but calls the story "troubling, to say the least."

The email goes on to tell staff they can talk to their manager, their director, the human resources office or the ombudsman if they have complaints.

"We are here to listen and to take action in order to keep improving our work environment," the memo said.

However, sources who worked at Rideau Hall said the harassment claims should raise questions about oversight and accountability at Rideau Hall.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau greets Assunta Di Lorenzo, secretary to Governor General Julie Payette, as they arrive at Rideau Hall to meet with the Governor General in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Employees can complain to the HR office — but the complaints go to Di Lorenzo, who reports to the Governor General.

Like other federal employees, the Governor General's staff members can talk to an ombudsman with Public Services Procurement Canada, but it's not part of the ombudsman's mandate to register complaints or launch investigations. At most, the ombudsman can raise issues to the most senior person within the department — in this case, Di Lorenzo.

NDP calls for review

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said all workplaces need to be safe and called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to look into the allegations against Payette.

Watch | Singh calls on PM to follow up on harassment claims made against Payette:

Allegations of bullying, harassment in Gov. Gen. Julie Payette’s office

2 years ago
Duration 2:16
There has been an exodus of employees from Gov. Gen. Julie Payette’s Rideau Hall office because of a culture of bullying and harassment, CBC News has learned.

"I think the first step would be to follow up on complaints and then there could be a thorough investigation of these. And if there were enough evidence to warrant suspending the Governor General from her duties, then that would be assessed at that point," Singh told a news conference Wednesday morning.

"There is a lack of transparency. There is a lack of clear protocol, which leads to a confusing and uncertain situation for employees."

The Prime Minister's Office said all Canadians have to work in a "healthy, respectful and safe environment," but referred CBC's questions to Rideau Hall ahead of Tuesday's story.

"Our government is committed to ensuring that all federally-regulated workplaces are free from harassment of any kind," said PMO press secretary Ann-Clara Vaillancourt.

Asked by Singh if he would "show leadership" and launch an "independent investigation" into the allegations of abuse, Trudeau largely repeated the lines sent by his office.

"Every Canadian has the right to a workplace free of harassment. That's why we moved forward in June to strengthen the oversight in federally regulated industries, including the public service," Trudeau said.

Watch | Allegations of bullying, harassment in Gov. Gen. Julie Payette's office:

Singh calls on the PM to follow up on abuse claims leveled against Payette

2 years ago
Duration 1:24
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was asked by reporters to respond to a CBC News investigation of the abuse of staff by the Governor General at Rideau Hall.

Youth Minister Bardish Chagger said the allegations will be "taken seriously."

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said the allegations "deserve a serious response and a serious investigation."

"I think no workplace should be toxic," he said.

Asked if Payette should step down, Vaughan said that's a question to ask after the allegations have been properly probed. He said the employees who reported harassment should file formal complaints.

He conceded the situation is "tricky" because Payette, as vice-regal, doesn't answer to the government of the day but rather to the person she represents — the Queen.

With files from CBC's Kristen Everson, John Paul Tasker

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