OTTAWA—Former governor general Julie Payette and her friend and top staffer Assunta Di Lorenzo oversaw a “toxic’ and “poisoned” workplace which drove many employees away, and left others sick or stressed out by the “hostile or negative” working conditions, an independent report confirms.
Employees, past and present, reported “allegations of yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations,” the reviewers summarized.
The behaviour began early and was persistent throughout Payette’s tenure at Rideau Hall after she was installed in October 2017.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had defended Payette up until his government received the scathing report.
Last week after Payette left, he said a rigorous vetting process had been followed prior to her installation.
But it failed to reveal Payette had left a trail of misery in two previous workplaces, the Montreal Science Centre and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
The damning report that finally led to action was conducted by an independent firm, Quintet Consulting Corporation, and was released in redacted form Wednesday night under the access to information law.
It was delivered to the Privy Council Office (PCO), which directly supports the prime minister, on Jan. 4.
Details only began to leak out on Jan 21. That afternoon, Payette said she would resign after a private conversation with Trudeau she had the night before.
A former employee who spoke on condition that they not be identified expressed relief and hope late Wednesday that the statements of more than 90 people would finally be persuasive.
“Let’s hope those who still doubted or believed these as rumours or exaggerated stories will now realize Payette and Di Lorenzo were at the centre of an unacceptable toxic workplace,” the source said.
“So many careers and lives have been negatively impacted because of these two tyrants. The staff at Rideau Hall will need a new Governor General and a Secretary who demonstrate compassion, kindness, empathy and humanity to support employees in their healing process.”
Neither Payette nor Di Lorenzo, her close friend whom Payette hired as Secretary to the Governor General (a senior deputy-minister-level staff position) who also resigned the same day, have admitted any direct responsibility for any wrongdoing.
Payette said she was “sorry” for tensions that had arisen since the review was launched, but wrote: “We all experience things differently, but we should always strive to do better, and be attentive to one another’s perceptions.”
Instead, Payette claimed she was resigning in the interests of the stability of the office.
The Star requested comment via the law firm reportedly representing Di Lorenzo, but had not received a reply by deadline.
Late Wednesday, after the report’s release, the office of Dominic LeBlanc, president of the Queen’s Privy Council, declined comment on why it took so long to release the report publicly.
“Out of respect for the privacy and confidentiality of former and current staff and others that participated, and in order to maintain the impartiality of this process, the report has been released following the appropriate redactions in accordance with the law,” said LeBlanc’s spokesperson Kelly Ouimet in a statement to the Star.
Details that could lead to people being identified were blacked out in the 132-page report.
Nearly all the participants in the review requested confidentiality, Quintet’s reviewers said.
The firm was hired by the federal Liberal government to investigate harassment allegations first raised by up to a dozen employees anonymously in a CBC News story in July.
It confirmed the worst, and urged the government to act immediately, notwithstanding the “unproven nature’ of the allegations. The reviewers didn’t have a mandate to prove or disprove the allegations.
However, they interviewed 92 current and former employees and other individuals who had witnessed Payette’s and Di Lorenzo’s leadership style.
While it said reviewers did not receive any “formal complaints of harassment” they set out a clear picture of a nightmare work environment.
In fact, 43 described it as a hostile workplace, more than two dozen of those interviewed painted a strikingly similar picture, using words like “toxic” or “poisoned.” Others used phrases like climate or reign of fear or terror, and a dozen said they were “walking on eggshells.”
Fewer than 10 participants in the process reported only positive or neutral information.
The report said 17 staff had left Rideau Hall during Payette’s tenure because of the work environment at Rideau Hall, and at least 13 had taken sick leave.
“Quintet concludes that there is a serious problem that requires PCO’s immediate attention.”
It summarized descriptions by 20 people of having witnessed harassment or referred to “harassing behaviours” in the workplace.
The report blacks out the details of specific incidents, but said employees described an atmosphere of “humiliation, disrespect, condescension,” a “non-inclusive workplace,” the “definition of a poisoned work environment.”
It said its call for immediate action by the government to address the concerns was needed because employees reflected their “distrust, fear and lack of confidence … that meaningful change will occur.”
It recommended against PCO even trying to bring in any consultants to try to “restore” a healthier workplace, saying without necessary action to address the concerns, the message to employees would be they’re responsible for doing it themselves.
The review said action is needed due to the “imperative of putting the health and safety of OSGG (Office to the Secretary to the Governor General) employees first.”
It also cited a “need for necessary action in order to forestall any criticism or cynicism vis-a-vis” the government’s commitment to a safe workplace.
Trudeau’s public comments since Payette’s resignation have mirrored the advice in the report: to thank employees and to acknowledge their work under difficult circumstances.
But he has not apologized to them.
Last week, when the Star asked LeBlanc if the government is worried that doing so would expose the government to legal liability, he said no, that the report was “conclusive beyond measure” and there was no disputing what had happened in the workplace was “totally unacceptable.”
The GG’s office is not subject to federal workplace policies, and the governor general is not a cabinet appointment.
As the Crown’s representative in Canada’s parliamentary system, the governor general is subject to only the office’s own code of conduct and values, with no real recourse for employees to blow the whistle on a bad boss.
When employees participated in a government-wide public service workplace survey, they reported that Di Lorenzo and Payette did not take the results seriously.
The report noted that at the time it was being written, a new code of conduct, ethics and values for the Office of the Secretary to the Governor General was being drafted.