'Rude and disrespectful': Federal food inspection agency executive abused, harassed staff

'Rude and disrespectful': Federal food inspection agency executive abused, harassed staff

An executive at Canada's food inspection agency mistreated and harassed staff, abused her authority and made inappropriate comments to employees on an ongoing basis, an investigation by the public sector integrity watchdog has concluded.

A case report from Public Sector Integrity Commissioner Joe Friday tabled today in the House of Commons found that Geneviève Desjardins, vice-president of communications and public affairs for the CFIA, also solicited personal information about employees from their colleagues, including about their health, and would "speak ill" about employees in their absence.

Witnesses said Desjardins targeted certain employees, especially those who challenged or questioned her authority. 

"Her overall unacceptable dealings with employees, intrusions into their personal matters and her rude and disrespectful comments about others were deliberate and frequent, and they had an impact on the wellness of many employees at various levels," Friday said in his report.

Friday said while he doesn't think the type of behaviour is systemic in the federal public sector, it is his hope that his findings of unprofessional and unacceptable actions will send a strong message that such behaviour is not acceptable or tolerated.

The commissioner's office does not investigate individual harassment complaints, but systemic instances of behaviour that can have a negative effect on employees and the workplace.

Friday said he is satisfied with CFIA's response to his recommendations, including one that called for disciplinary action against Desjardins.

She is not currently in her post, but CFIA would not provide any details on her status, citing privacy as an "internal human resources" matter.

A statement provided to CBC News said CFIA has already intitiated action.

"Fostering a respectful and harassment-free workplace is a key priority for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency," the statement reads. "Real or perceived wrongdoing on the part of the agency's senior management team must be and will be treated seriously and with the rigour and attention that is warranted."

Fighting to quash

According to the report, CFIA president Paul Glover said that "appropriate action is being taken, bearing in mind the findings of this report, and CFIA and government of Canada policies."

But Desjardins is fighting to quash the report in federal court. Her lawyer Benoit Duclos called the PSIC investigation "very, very problematic," and accused the office of "going after someone instead of gathering the facts."

He accused the investigative process of having "blatant bias," and said some witnesses felt badgered and threatened if their answers were not in line with the complainants. One witness who backed up Desjardins' version of the facts was disregarded, Duclos said.

He suggested some witnesses fabricated stories because Desjardins was ushering in changes to improve workplace performance that they resisted.

"Some people didn't like her new style of management and the changes that were being made," Duclos told CBC News in an interview.

The CFIA has about 6,555 employees and is in charge of safeguarding food safety, animal and plant health.

Derogatory remarks

According to Friday's report, witnesses heard Desjardins describe another executive in the branch as "not normal," "menopausal," "not right," "moody" and "incompetent."

One executive testified that in his last few months working for Desjardins, he was responsible for more than 50 employees, six managers and two directors.

"Not a day went by, not one, where someone wasn't in my office either crying, upset, alarmed, complaining or shocked by the behaviour of our VP … employees were being reduced to what could only be described as employees that were being bullied or harassed. It had become a terrible place to work," the executive said.

The commissioner's report is a followup to a February report that found the former president of the CFIA and its vice-president of human resources failed to take appropriate action to deal fairly and thoroughly with serious harassment complaints.

That investigation found that Bruce Archibald and Gérard Étienne committed "gross mismanagement" in response to three harassment complaints made against Desjardins dating back to 2014, finding the two officials did not adequately investigate the complaints.

Remedial steps

Friday said the behaviour flies in the face of the government's "clear priorities" to promote mental health in the workplace.

In response to his recommendations, the CFIA president agreed to take measures to foster a healthy workplace and to address the needs of those affected by Desjardins' actions.

"I would once again reassure you that I am committed to the well‐being of all CFIA employees and that I intend to take the steps necessary to continue to promote and foster a healthy, positive and productive work environment for all staff," Glover said in the report.