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Myriam Denis story reveals some questionable HR practices in PMO, say labour experts

By Jolson Lim      

'He has no role in the investigation, period. He is seen as an agent of the PMO. In this case, he has, on the surface, an interest in protecting the PMO's reputation,' said one human resource specialist about the head of the new PMO harassment office, Brett Thalmann.

One expert also said that the politicized nature of the PMO, its headquarters on Wellington Street pictured, may interfere with its ability to field harassment complaints.PMO was currently working with the Treasury Board to add the “procedure for harassment inquiries to the official policy for exempt staff.” 
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The PMO bureau charged with resolving harassment complaints shouldn’t have reached out to a potential victim of inappropriate behaviour while a third-party investigation was ongoing, because such an action can hurt the integrity of the workplace complaints resolution process in the country’s top political executive office, say human resource and labour experts.  

Eddy Ng, a Dalhousie University professor specializing in human resources management, told The Hill Times he saw several issues with the way government officials dealt with communications professional Myriam Denis, who wrote her account of interactions with two high-ranking Liberal staffers in a Huffington Post Canada blog on Feb. 5.

The interaction in question involved the head of the newly-formed Harassment Resolution and Investigation Office (HRIO), Brett Thalmann, reaching out to Ms. Denis after she publicly wrote on Facebook that Claude-Éric Gagné had inappropriately messaged her several months after he was one of several government officials to interview her for a job in Government House leader Bardish Chagger’s (Waterloo, Ont.) office.

Ms. Denis wrote that Mr. Thalmann had contacted her over Facebook messenger in December while a third-party investigation requested by the PMO to look into unrelated allegations of inappropriate behaviour by Mr. Gagné was ongoing. The Huffington Post was also the first to report on the existence of the PMO’s two-person HRIO, was formed in October 2017.

Mr. Thalmann had first offered Ms. Denis the opportunity to share her story with the PMO. Ms. Denis then questioned why he reached out to her while an independent investigation into Mr. Gagné was underway. Mr. Thalmann, who told her that he handles human resources for the PMO, replied that he could put her in touch with the third-party if she wanted. Ms. Denis replied that, “it’s what you should have done first if your organization really cared about women.”

Mr. Gagné resigned as the PMO’s deputy director of operations on Jan. 29 following the conclusion of the investigation.

Mr. Ng said it was problematic for Mr. Thalmann to reach out to a potential victim while an independent investigation into an alleged harasser was ongoing, because he would be seen as having an interest in the matter by virtue of his PMO position.

“He has no role in the investigation, period. He is seen as an agent of the PMO. In this case, he has—on the surface—an interest in protecting the PMO’s reputation,” he said.

He said a third-party investigation has to be—and be entirely perceived to be—neutral, unbiased, and fair. Anything that can be viewed as influencing an investigation can harm the integrity of the process.

Alex Lucifero, an Ottawa-based labour lawyer at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, told The Hill Times that “to a certain extent, you can give credit to Mr. Thalmann for pointing Ms. Denis into the direction [of the third-party investigator], but the problem is the context in which that advice was given.”

Brett Thalmann, PMO director of administration and special project. Photograph courtesy of Facebook

Mr. Lucifero also questioned why Mr. Thalmann first offered her the opportunity to speak to the PMO about her experience, which gives the appearance of a quiet attempt to resolve the matter quickly.

Soma Ray-Ellis, Toronto-based chair of the employment law group at Gardiner Roberts LLP, told The Hill Times that “normally in the context of an investigation, if it becomes public that there are other victims, the usual course is to advise the investigator to contact the potential victim or witnesses.”

“The head of HR has an obligation to instruct the investigator to expand the investigation so that a fulsome review of the matter has taken place,” she said, adding that it’s not the role of HR to contact or communicate directly with potential victims or witnesses “given the purpose of hiring a third party investigator is ensure an unbiased and intimidation-free investigation.”

Mr. Ng said if this was a legal case, where due process was enshrined, such an action could be seen by the court as interference and potentially result in the investigation being tossed out as evidence.

The PMO has defended the actions of Mr. Thalmann, with press secretary Eleanore Catenaro telling The Huffington Post that he had not made the quick exchange with Ms. Denis to ward off any political embarrassment, but rather to “ensure she was aware of the process to follow if she wanted to share her story with the independent investigator.”

When news of the investigation into Mr. Gagné broke on Dec. 13, Ms. Denis shared a TVA Nouvelles article about it on Facebook, and commented that he had sent her inappropriate messages after she was turned down for the job. The next day, Mr. Thalmann, who is also the PMO’s director of administration and special projects, messaged her on Facebook to talk about sharing her story.

Ms. Denis wrote in the Huffington Post that Mr. Gagné had sent her a friend request on Facebook and messaged her months after he had interviewed her over the phone for a policy adviser position in Ms. Chagger’s office, which she was not hired for. She recounted that he messaged that she was so pretty and “he couldn’t resist and control himself.” 

Mr. Gagné told the online outlet that he refuted the publicly undisclosed allegations that were the subject of the investigation. The PMO has also refused to disclose the allegations. He was placed on leave in November when the PMO first learned about the allegations.

Mr. Ng and Mr. Lucifero also said they were surprised that there wasn’t further inquiry into the actions of Vahid Vidah, then a policy adviser in Ms. Chagger’s office, soon after Ms. Denis had flagged it with the office’s chief of staff Rachel Bendayan.

Claude-Eric Gagné, former PMO staffer, pictured in May 2016. The Hill Times file photograph

Ms. Denis wrote in the Huffington Post that Mr. Vidah had met to interview her for a job but arrived in casual clothes and put his hand on her thigh in the meeting. She later found out he had not been involved in the hiring process. Mr. Vidah has since left the office, but told the Huffington Post he was not told to interview Ms. Denis for a job, and “at no time” led her to believe he was in charge of the hiring process, and said he met with her in a personal capacity. He did not deny touching her thigh, but said if he did it was in a friendly, non-sexual manner.

After Ms. Bendayan told Ms. Denis she didn’t receive the job, she informed Ms. Bendayan about her encounter with Mr. Vidah. The chief of staff said that Mr. Vidah’s actions were inappropriate and that she was very disappointed that the interaction occurred, adding that Mr. Vidah was not working in Ms. Chagger’s office anymore.

“Right there and then, she had a duty to investigate,” Mr. Ng said. Mr. Lucifero agreed there was an obligation to look into it further.

On Feb. 5, Ms. Chagger told reporters that her office is looking into why she wasn’t made aware of Ms. Denis’ experience with Mr. Vidah earlier, adding that she finds these behaviours “entirely unacceptable.”

Who handles complaints?

In an email, PMO press secretary Chantal Gagnon told The Hill Times that the HRIO serves as a formal point of contact for any “exempt staff,” meaning political aides working in the PMO as well in ministers’ offices. The HRIO “addresses and responds to inquiries brought forward, and where appropriate, it can arrange for a formal, independent investigation.”

Ms. Gagnon said that since November 2017, the HRIO has “implemented a comprehensive training program specifically for all ministerial exempt staff in managerial positions, which has included several in-person training sessions led by a legal expert.” She wouldn’t say what the focus of the sessions were.

Ms. Gagnon also said Mr. Thalmann “has been doing HR since he joined PMO in November 2016 and HR staff within the PMO report” to him. The other member of the bureau is Sabina Saini, deputy director of policy in the PMO, who is a “designated point of contact for the HRIO.”

“Staff are encouraged to reach out to Brett, Sabina or any other senior staff member to address their concerns. All of this information was widely communicated via memo to all exempt staff,” she wrote.

Myriam Denis, pictured on Facebook.

When asked, Ms. Gagnon didn’t say what qualified Ms. Thalmann and Ms. Saini to handle workplace harassment complaints. She also did not discuss the role of Trish Renaud, who is listed as a human resources adviser in the PMO.

Mr. Ng said a human resources manager tasked with responding to workplace harassment complaints typically has a high degree of knowledge about the institution, and the labour codes and best practices that govern it.

“But HR has evolved into a profession in which you can’t just slip into the role because you understand the organization’s policies and practices,” he said.

Mr. Ng said nowadays, human resources managers are often trained to handle workplace complaints and harassment, and taught about dispute resolution, occupational health and safety, labour law, and organizational psychology. He noted that many provinces now have HR professional certification and post-secondary schools offer degrees.

“That [would] generally the case in the private sector,” added Mr. Lucifero.

“I don’t see why it should be any different in the public sector. You need that expertise and knowledge … especially in such a high governmental office.”

Mr. Thalmann arrived in the PMO in November 2016 from the Liberal Research Bureau, where he served as managing director for one year. Before she worked in the PMO, Ms. Saini was chief of staff to Treasury Board President Scott Brison (Kings-Hants, N.S.) from December 2015 to October 2017.

Mr. Ng stressed that human resources managers must be qualified because a potential complainant has to be able to trust the manager when submitting a harassment complaint.

PMO’s politicized nature can make it difficult to handle complaints

Eddy Ng, Dalhousie University professor, said there were multiple questionable human resource practices in Ms. Denis’ story. Photograph courtesy of the Dalhousie University website

Mr. Ng said the HRIO could be in a difficult position when it comes to responding to complaints, because the PMO is staffed by political aides constantly trying to “prove their loyalty” to its bosses. In such a setting,  political calculations about how to resolve harassment complaints may be made, and victims may feel reluctant to speak up in order to avoid damaging the office’s reputation.

Because PMO personnel are political appointees, there could also be a blurred distinction between “whether HR works for the employee, the employer, or the optics of the employer.” He said the PMO would have to engage an external third-party to ensure procedural fairness.

Mr. Ng said strong policies on handling complaints are needed now that more women are publicly coming forward with their experiences in light of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.

The current House of Commons workplace harassment policy doesn’t apply to the PMO and other exempt staff, but Ms. Gagnon said Bill C-65 will require the office to have a policy in place. Currently, the Treasury Board has an official policy governing exempt staff, although there is nothing about how to handle complaints.

Ms. Gagnon also said the PMO was currently working with the Treasury Board to add the “procedure for harassment inquiries to the official policy for exempt staff.” 

jlim@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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