CHAUDHRI: Rideau Hall’s culture problem doesn’t end with Julie Payette

By April 16, 2021 No Comments

George Floyd’s death sparked a global anti-racism movement across public and private workplaces everywhere, except at Rideau Hall, allegedly.

As most of you will recall, Rideau Hall made recent headlines when Canada’s former governor general Julie Payette and her second-in-command Assunta Di Lorenzo resigned after a scathing report recounted the pair created a hostile and toxic workplace with employee reports of “yelling, screaming, aggressive conduct, demeaning comments and public humiliations.”

Khadija El Hilali, an ex-employee of Rideau Hall who also worked under Payette’s administration, told the CBC she was reprimanded after sending an email to her colleagues about her feelings on racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. El Hilali sought permission from her manager to email her counterparts about racial injustice in advance. Not receiving a response, she sent the email anyway. El Halili’s email was met with a strong rebuke; her manager informing El Hilali that Di Lorenzo’s office demanded she recall it immediately.

In direct contrast, El Halili alleges a white employee was praised by the same manager for raising the same issues about racism and Floyd’s death in a subsequent meeting. El Hilali told the CBC she resigned prior to the end of her contract claiming the workplace at Rideau Hall was “toxic, unhealthy and unsafe” for people of colour.

The superior who reprimanded El Hilali continues to work at Rideau Hall following the sweeping investigation that resulted in the resignations of Payette and Di Lorenzo last month. The question remains whether or not Rideau Hall has more house cleaning to do.

The report released about Payette’s misconduct was prepared after an external consulting company interviewed 92 current and former employees; 43 of whom described the workplace as “hostile or negative.”

El Hilali was not one of the employees interviewed in the investigation (she was never contacted). But she claims her concerns about racism were minimized, including that there was “absolute silence” from Rideau Hall following George Floyd’s death. This despite Justin Trudeau’s very public encouragement of the Black Lives Matter movement; the Prime Minister seen joining in a protest outside of Parliament Hill and taking a knee before TV cameras for the entire nation to see.

Rideau Hall registered a bland response to El Hilali’s claims, responding flatly in part: “It is an important period for renewal.”

This is not enough on many levels. The horse has left the barn. Rideau Hall has confirmed that it cultivated a toxic workplace. Owning up is not enough. What of the employees who are still working under the same regime? The ouster of a few top dogs does not change the culture of an organization built through acts of aggression, public flogging and bullying. Culture is baked in. If anything El Hilali’s story tells us, rather inconveniently for Rideau Hall, that Payette’s exit was like giving the organization a fancy car wash without looking under the hood.

There are more characters to this story; other managers and people of power who advanced the toxic culture under Payette’s leadership. They must be identified and disciplined, coached or removed all together if culture at Rideau Hall can truly change. A new governor general will be but window dressing until this real work is done.

On to your questions from this week:

Q. Dear Sunira. Everyone talks about more testing and screening, about looking into physical distancing problems, and no one so far seems to want to speak about the real elephant in the room …. I’m talking about the continual, incessant and mandatory wearing of masks! I seem to remember some health experts commenting about how most masks become ineffective at stopping anything after being worn for 20-30 minutes continuously … Should this be true, then shouldn’t the first question to ask workers be, “Just how long are you wearing your mask continuously?” Second question should then be, “Do you have access to multiple clean, fresh masks for your entire shift?”

A. You raise an interesting point about mask hygiene, although I am not aware of the science on it. It is prudent for employers to have disposable masks available for all staff who must attend work. To your point, employers can consider providing daily masks to employees to ensure they are clean and do not contain germs from being worn on previous days.

Q. I know a lot of people want to work from home but I am the opposite. My employer announced it is changing our offices permanently. I am losing my cubicle and will be randomly assigned a desk when I come into work. I have to take all my personal belongings home, which really pains me. I like my workspace. My company is encouraging employees to work from home more than half the time. I live in a very disruptive household with no real privacy. The thought of working from home long-term is scary. What is your advice?

A. For a number of reasons, working from home isn’t an option for many. Talk to your employer about your inability to be productive from home and that you do not have a quiet private place to conduct calls, meetings or to complete your work. Based on your note it seems like you can attend work everyday but are just encouraged to work from home half the time. Make it clear now that returning to the office full-time is a better option for you. If it is also the best option for your mental health, your employer is required to accommodate you.