Under fire over workplace harassment claims, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette reaches out to staff in memo

More than a week after claims of workplace harassment at Rideau Hall surfaced, Gov. Gen. Julie Payette today told her staff in a memo that she’s listening to their concerns and called on them to “stay united.”

CBC News has obtained a copy of an internal memo sent to all staff today. It’s believed to be the first time Payette has commented on the harassment claims directly to employees.

“The past week has been a trying one for our office and like all of you, I am affected by what we hear,” wrote Payette. 

“When faced with problems, it is imperative to stay united and work together to find solutions. I am listening and I remain fully committed to our team and our mission.”

Rideau Hall’s workplace environment is under review by the Privy Council Office, which is finalizing the terms for hiring an external third party to conduct a “thorough, independent and impartial” probe that will include confidential interviews with current and former employees.

The review follows a CBC News report last Tuesday that cited a dozen unnamed sources saying Payette has created a toxic work environment and a culture of fear at Rideau Hall — to the point where some staffers have been reduced to tears, have gone on leaves of absence or have left the office altogether.

“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.

Claims staff humiliated, belittled 

Sixteen sources with direct knowledge of the alleged harassment have told CBC News that Payette has yelled at, belittled and publicly humiliated employees. They accuse her of throwing tantrums over the quality of staff work and accusing staffers of incompetence. Her longtime friend and second-in-command, Assunta Di Lorenzo, is also accused of bullying staff, yelling at them and calling them “lazy” and “incompetent.”

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 Governor General Julie Payette in Ottawa on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

In one four-month period during Payette’s mandate, roughly two dozen people reported abusive conduct by Payette or Di Lorenzo to management, according to government sources.

The National Post reported Friday on claims that Payette’s treatment of staff at the Montreal Science Centre foreshadowed what was to come at Rideau Hall.

A government survey backs up the claims at Rideau Hall. As reported by Macleans, the survey says Rideau Hall has the third highest harassment levels in the federal public service. Twenty-two per cent of respondents working for Rideau Hall claimed to have experienced harassment and 74 per cent of them attributed it to individuals with authority over them.

The Privy Council Office said it’s aware of the survey but hasn’t received any formal complaints in writing. Sources told CBC News they have complained informally to the ombudsman and to human resources, but claim sufficient action wasn’t taken. 

Payette assures staff they’ve done an ‘extraordinary job’

Payette’s memo to staff assured staff that the news reports of the past week “in no way [reflect] the excellence of the work you have done.” 

“You have done an extraordinary job over the past few months and I couldn’t be more proud to be part of your team,” wrote Payette. “You have demonstrated unparalleled agility and flexibility since we closed the office last March, you have quickly adapted to teleworking and you have redoubled your efforts.

“You have invested yourself, helped each other and used your creativity so that we could continue to fulfil our constitutional responsibilities and ensure the continuity of our tasks and services, while staying in touch with all Canadians. Thank you all!”

Brigitte Carbonneau is from Montreal and has spent more than two decades with the Cirque du Soleil. (Facebook)

This week, Brigitte Carbonneau, a former manager from Cirque du Soleil, joined Rideau Hall as its new chief of staff and special adviser to Payette.

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

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