Lessons Learned: Julie Payette Harassment Allegations

What we can learn about “toxic” workplaces from the Rideau Hall complaints

Within the federal civil service, working with the Governor-General at Rideau Hall should be a plum position. Instead, news reports suggest that routine verbal harassment created a “toxic” workplace. I should note that these allegations have not been proven.

Here are the lessons that business owners, managers, and HR leaders can take away.

One: Make sure everyone understands the expectations for a respectful workplace

The sources who spoke to the CBC report that Governor-General Julie Payette and her secretary Assunta Di Lorenzo yelled at, belittled, and publicly humiliated employees. People were seen leaving the office in tears. One report described how trips abroad were particularly stressful for all. In-flight debriefs on the way home could last “hours” while Payette verbally attacked employees over what she considered sub-standard work. Di Lorenzo apparently accused people of being “lazy and incompetent.”

Such behaviour is clearly unacceptable in the workplace. It is the responsibility of leaders – business owners, managers, and HR personnel – to make sure that everyone understands expectations for respectful behaviour. (You might think that we can assume people would know, for example, that just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can yell at people who report to you. Unfortunately I’ve been working in this field long enough to know that this isn’t the case.)

Two: Structural factors can make harassment harder to address

Employees at Rideau Hall who felt harassed had a few options: They could take it up with the HR department, or with their direct supervisor, or with the Ombudsperson. The problem was that all of these roads lead directly to Di Lorenzo, the Governor-General’s secretary and her close friend. (And who, you may remember, is herself accused of workplace harassment.) Employees felt like they had no place to turn. This made an already stressful situation even more stressful.

This is a structural issue I see frequently in smaller organizations and sometimes in large ones as well: employees who are harassed do not feel that they have anywhere to turn. The person they are supposed to come to with concerns is not genuinely independent and is seen as a friend or associate of the person perpetrating the harassment.

Three: Employees will leave (and not just the ones who experience harassment directly)

In the Communications section alone, five employees have left for good and two have taken leaves of absence. One was quoted as saying, “Life’s too short. I don’t want to come to work in the morning and spend the day feeling like I’m going to cry or not feeling like I could speak up.”

People will leave a good-paying job if it causes them significant stress. Most people don’t want to go into a workplace that has too much “drama.” It is upsetting to see colleagues being treated poorly. Those who aren’t being harassed will wonder, “Am I next?”

Four: Word will get out

Workplace harassment in your organization may not make the national news, but people do talk. In larger organizations, people will know which departments are particularly dysfunctional. In smaller industries, people know which companies have bad reputations. Tools like Glassdoor make it easy to spread the word.

Five: “Abrasive” managers often feel that their actions are justified

According to reports, Payette’s “outbursts” were often a result of being upset with the quality of someone’s work and the belief that she “has to do everything herself” because everyone else is incompetent.

Such sentiments are a clear indication that a manager needs coaching in how to manage effectively and respectfully. Workplace harassment guidelines are meant to protect everyone, not just those who are highly competent. People don’t improve their job performance when they are harassed. In fact there are plenty of indications that the opposite is true – employees who are harassed feel stressed and under pressure, which makes their job performance worse.

Finally, some MPs and government ministers are calling for an investigation into the allegations against Payette and Di Lorenzo. This is a high-profile workplace and many people are paying attention. Whatever the response, those involved have a responsibility to get it right.

About the image:  Photo by Johanie Maheu, Wikimedia Commons