New harassment policy for Alberta political staff falls short, says lawyer for past employee

·3 min read
The new policy applies to employees in the premier and ministers' offices, but not to elected officials. However, all Alberta cabinet ministers have signed a new agreement, promising to provide a safe and respectful work environment for staff. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)
The new policy applies to employees in the premier and ministers' offices, but not to elected officials. However, all Alberta cabinet ministers have signed a new agreement, promising to provide a safe and respectful work environment for staff. (David Bajer/CBC - image credit)

The Alberta government has released a summary of new respectful workplace rules in response to a lawsuit alleging the premier's office was home to a hostile workplace environment.

The summary report, released Tuesday, outlines respectful workplace rules for political staff in the Government of Alberta, including how to report and investigate complaints about harassment at work.

The third-party review of the government's HR policies was launched after former senior legislature staffer Ariella Kimmel filed a lawsuit against the premier's office last October.

Kimmel's lawyer, Kathryn Marshall, said the policy will do nothing to protect employees from harassment or retaliation and does nothing to resolve the allegedly problematic culture within the Alberta government.

Marshall also said the policy encourages victims to deal with complaints informally through resolution, not investigation. That's a problem, she said, because complaints should be formally documented by human resources.

"I see it as continuing to perpetuate exactly the situation that happened with my client," said Marshall in an interview Tuesday.

The summary is an abbreviated version of a larger HR policy review by lawyers Jamie Pytel and Alex Matthews of Kingsgate Legal.

Marshall said she and her client are applying to the court to compel the premier's office to release all their findings and recommendations.

"This is going to be, for a lot of people, very disappointing, because there really isn't much in here," Marshall said.

The allegations in Kimmel's lawsuit include sexual harassment and heavy drinking by ministers and staff in legislature offices, and claims that senior staff in the premier's office fabricated rumours about her, contributing to Kimmel's termination.

This then led to former Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen stepping out of his cabinet post last November, saying his use of alcohol had "become an issue for the government."

Will Wang/CBC
Will Wang/CBC

Kimmel alleges she was fired as retribution after speaking up and that the perpetrators faced no consequences.

The premier's office has denied the allegations in court documents. It said it investigated all harassment complaints.

None of the allegations have been proven in court and Premier Jason Kenney himself is not named in the suit.

Documents say premier's office can't control everyone's conduct

The new policy contained within the summary report applies to employees in the premier and ministers' offices, but not to elected officials.

On Tuesday, Kenney said all ministers have signed a new two-page undertaking, promising to promote a safe work environment for staff, to help informally resolve disputes with staff, and to co-operate with any investigation into formal complaints about harassment or discrimination.

"The report points to areas where we can provide greater clarity to political staff about where to bring a complaint, of what nature, and how that should be handled by their managers," Kenney said Tuesday.

He added that his government was the first to mandate workplace respect training for all elected officials, political staff and civil servants.

However, the guide to interpreting the policy also says the premier's office can't control everyone's conduct.

"Unfortunately, moving a staff member to a new assignment is sometimes the only safe or available solution to a workplace issue," it says.

Employees should view this as a "safety measure" and not a punishment for filing a complaint, it says.

Marshall says these clauses are vague, troubling, and absolve the premier's office of responsibility. They also imply a victim of harassment is expected to sacrifice their career for speaking up, she said.

"Anyone in politics knows that the premier's office has control of everything," she said.

Marshall is also seeking a court order to compel Kenney to answer questions about the working environment in his government.

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