I’m sure you’re all familiar with the proverb, a fish rots from the head down. Alas, some leaders are arrogant enough to think they’re never the problem; the narcissists of the world who unfortunately have been privileged with a position of power. Again, I’m using that word privilege you’ve all grown to hate. White privilege, social privilege, class privilege, economic privilege, educational privilege, gender privilege, generational privilege, geographic privilege, privilege, privilege, privilege!

Most people fail to understand that with privilege comes great responsibility. You certainly do have a duty to yourself and people you impact with privilege. For example, your driver’s license is a privilege; you have a duty to drive responsibly for the sake of pedestrians and other drivers around you. A king, a leader, is in a position of privilege – wealth, power and influence – and is responsible for his people. Understand that privilege is not an evil word by any means and the way we apply it changes over time and space. However, privilege primarily comes in two forms: you’re either born with it (generational wealth or status) or acquire it through (hard) work. Today, we’re going to focus on the latter and notice that the word “hard” is between parentheses.

A first time for everything

In almost 154 years of governing, there has never been a scandal like the one we saw on January 21st, 2021, at the Office of the Governor-General of Canada. Now former Governor-General Julie Payette “resigned” from her role after an independent investigative firm released its report reviewing her contribution to a toxic workplace and the safety risks to her staff. The report was apparently abominable, so much so that even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t thank Payette for her service when he released a statement upon receiving her resignation! Many news outlets such as CBC and the National Post, and many more government officials, have expressed shock and outrage about it being the first time we have ever had a Governor-General enable toxic behaviours and harassment in the workplace. However, the truth is that this has likely been going on for over a century and that former Gov.-Gen Julie Payette was the first to get caught. I’m not suggesting every prior Governor-General contributed to a toxic workplace; I’m saying that it’s very likely Payette wasn’t the first.

There has been more demand from our government over the years to address the systemic and root issues within our democracy. There may be a presumption that these changes can easily happen overnight, but the reality is that they take years if not decades to implement. One of the most important changes we have been demanding over the years is a safe and healthy workplace. While the private sector has begun to leverage this demand to attract the best and the brightest, the public sector is lagging far behind. Even with Prime Minister Trudeau’s famous “because it’s 2015,” statement (in response to why the gender-balanced cabinet), government agencies still have some of the worst and most toxic work environments in the country! And guess what? It’s 2021. But don’t take my word for it! Walk into any Service Canada or Service Ontario and observe the workers behind the desk. They’re bored, bitter, robotic, and lack drive and ambition. Why is that, though? Why are public sectors behind in implementing progressive and positive systemic changes to the workplace?

Accountability drives positivity

I had the opportunity to work for a few government agencies in my 20s, and I found they all had one thing in common: no accountability. Government positions, whether federal or provincial, are typically protected. This usually means getting laid off or fired is nearly impossible. There’s an inside joke in government that you could kill your colleagues and still have your job, but steal a pen, and you’re out. It’s more sad and pathetic than funny, really. Company theft is really the only crime that’s not protected in government positions. The point is that without consequences, there isn’t much accountability. Furthermore, getting recruited for a government role can take up to two years, let alone promoted, further enforcing little to no accountability in one’s role. If there’s little to no chance of me getting fired or promoted, then why bother? Who cares? I go to work, do the bare minimum, eat the crap I’m fed, and go home. Repeat. 

No consequences reward bad behaviour

Obviously, the aim isn’t to micromanage and berate every single employee for every mistake they do. But at the same time, when there are no consequences to one’s poor behaviour, poor actions, or poor performance, this sets the workplace up for toxicity. People are not as intuitive as one may think. Leadership has a duty to set the expectations to its staff and relay the consequences if a safe and healthy work environment is not upheld. It’s clear from what unravelled in the last few days that former Gov.-Gen Payette had neither set the expectation nor applied the necessary consequences resulting in an inviting environment for abuse, bullying and harassment. 

The most dangerous part is that a lot of the times these start as micro-aggressions that build over time. They start with seemingly harmless jokes or comments, and the more it appears to be accepted, the more likely the drawn line shifts. Leaders need to understand their roles when it comes to combatting harassment in the workplace. It’s been said many a time that silence is a form of enabling. “But they didn’t come forward with their complaint, so my hands were tied.” Oh, how many times I’ve heard that one before?! A leader can be creative in addressing glaringly obvious toxicity in the workplace without needing a formal complaint. Lack of accountability for one’s actions, including the leader’s actions, rewards bad behaviour, not good.

Take ownership of your actions

There’s only so much an individual can control when it comes to a work environment. You, who may not be in a leadership position, can still contribute to a positive workplace by taking ownership of your behaviour and work. Think of how you communicate with others and ask yourself what it is like being on the receiving end of what you say. Do you make a lot of passive-aggressive remarks? Are you a jokester? Do you have empathy? Are you extremely open or private about your personal life? Do you draw lines and set boundaries with your colleagues? Do you have a plan when you encounter harassment in the workplace, and can you distinguish the unintentional from the intentional harm? Finally, are you equipped with educating and coaching others, or do you need coaching? It’s not a bad idea to check in with yourself once in a while. Minimizing our bias and ignorance is free and goes a long way. As for the leaders, it’s time we reform the way we appoint our leaders in both public and private sector and build a workplace where everyone can thrive. Every individual is deserving of a safe and healthy workplace whether they want to stay where they are or move up in the world.


Featured Photo: Governor General Julie Payette arrives at a swearing in ceremony in Ottawa, Ont., on August 18, 2020. (Patrick Doyle/Reuters), found on CBC

4 thoughts on “A Fish Rots From the Head Down: Gov.-Gen Julie Payette Sets the Precedence for Leadership Accountability

  1. Totally agree Ms Al-Sabagh, including about these situations possibly starting as micro-aggressions that go unchecked. Getting away with something emboldens bullies. So, they learn on the job how best to get away with what matters most to them – exploiting others.
    One can also look at the highest leadership defending Ms Payette at the expense of the whistleblowers until it was no longer sustainable. No ‘nipping it in the bud’, those people had to function for months without even an acknowledgment that their complaints might have merit, and without the support of many of their peers who knew what was true but whose participation in the complaints process was voluntary. Think about that for a moment – you can have relevant evidence about someone else’s mistreatment, but – no problem – you have the right to put your own career first.
    Personality disorders are also a factor in the civil service. Certain types are good at getting into positions of authority, especially where there are no genuine markers for functioning well, and the majority of people in the civil service are not likely to stick their necks out to defend victims of that pathology. Once embedded, these people spend most of their time on their real project which is causing harm to others.
    One point, though, about job security in government, in the 90s (and maybe beyond) there were also a lot of contract government employees. They were easy targets for their indeterminate status peers and managers. And the amoral majority, at best, stood by.

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