Rideau Hall is the latest workplace to become famous for its toxicity. The story of Julie Payette’s reign and downfall serves as an important reminder for workplaces. The law attempts to protect employees from violence and harassment in the workplace with both proactive and reactive requirements. However, when the offending behaviour comes from the very top, as was the case for the Rideau Hall employees, feelings of powerlessness are pervasive.
The independent workplace report resulting from a review of the circumstances at Rideau Hall reported that 43 employees described the work environment as “hostile.” Out of 93 current and former employees interviewed, only 10 described the work environment in neutral or positive terms.
No Formal Complaints
Julie Payette held the position of Governor General from October 2, 2017, until her resignation this January, following the report. In her resignation speech, Ms. Payette noted that no formal complaints or official grievances were filed against her. The report also notes that HR complaints about Ms. Payette went to her second in command, Assunta di Lorenzo, who would take them to Ms. Payette, and presumably make things worse for the complainant.
This situation highlights a few good lessons for the employer. Under the Ontario legislation, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, harassment in the workplace needs to be addressed by the employer once the employer becomes aware of it. It does not matter if there is a formal complaint.
Alternative Means of Making Complaints
Further, employers need to make allowances for the situation in which a powerful person in the organization or a person in HR, who would normally receive complaints, is the alleged harasser or is too close to the alleged harasser to be trustworthy. Workplace violence and harassment prevention policies should make allowances for alternative ways to make complaints or alternative people who can receive complaints to address the very situation that arose in Rideau Hall. It’s certainly noteworthy that despite the extremely widespread feeling among employees that the workplace was not a positive one, action was only taken once the media became involved. The employees felt their only recourse was taking their complaints public.
Both federally and provincially regulated employers should ensure that their workplace violence and harassment prevention programs are up to date and comply with the law – Part II of the Canada Labour Code for federally regulated workplaces and the Occupational Health and Safety Act for Ontario workplaces accordingly.
Employees need to be trained on harassment and violence and understand what and how to report. Employers need to ensure that appropriate action is taken when they become aware of violence or harassment, regardless of the source of the information or its formal or informal status.
If you have questions about workplace health and safety, get in touch for a consultation.