The Ontario government has acknowledged for the first time the harm done to the careers of female public servants during years of reported bullying, sexism and sexual harassment by a director, as well as inaction on the part of the province to deal with the behaviour.
Serge Imbrogno, Deputy Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks, sent out an all-staff memo to employees last week, acknowledging the events described in a recent Globe and Mail investigation.
“When I read the article, it became very clear to me that staff have been and may continue to be impacted by the events described in the article,” Mr. Imbrogno wrote. “The Globe and Mail article points out an opportunity for us to re-examine our efforts, our tools and our responsibility to address workplace concerns raised by employees.”
Notably, the memo highlighted a policy that states managers who “fail to act appropriately on findings of discrimination or harassment may be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.”
Last month, as part of the ongoing Power Gap series that has been examining gender discrimination in the modern workforce, The Globe revealed how the careers of multiple women were affected by the actions of one man and a system that enabled him. The story showed how the ministry ignored numerous complaints through the years and eventually – after a third-party review substantiated allegations against him – allowed the director to leave the public service under a narrative that he was stepping back to help his ailing parents. The assistant deputy minister at the time sent an e-mail to staff wishing the director well. The director was immediately hired as a manager at a GTA municipality, where he worked until 2014, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Two women who spoke to The Globe about this period requested the director not be named, because they wanted the full focus to be on how the provincial government – their employer – allowed the behaviour to continue for years.
The primary events in the story occurred from 2004 to 2006, but the earliest allegation went back to the mid-1990s, and the legal fallout is ongoing.
The first allegation involved a woman named Jeanette Szabo. She says the director was known as a bully who frequently made sexist jokes and inappropriate remarks about women. One day, after she stuck up for herself publicly, Ms. Szabo says the director grabbed her by the throat and shook her. When she confronted him about it, he told her to prepare a job posting – for her own position. (The director later acknowledged he “touched” Ms. Szabo’s neck, but denied it was violent. He did not dispute that he told her to create a job posting.) The director was ordered to take “gender relations” training.
The second allegation relates to a woman who reported the director for sexual misconduct that occurred a year and a half before the incident with Ms. Szabo. At the time, the woman’s manager told her she “should not have put herself in this position.” That manager later repeated that phrase in his official memo about the allegation. The woman reported the alleged misconduct again after the incident with Ms. Szabo and this time the province hired a third-party investigator.
Half a dozen women told that investigator they had avoided meetings and networking events because of the director.
“Everyone has similar stories, and there is a sense that senior management knows but is unwilling or unable to make change,” said one woman in the report. “There is a general sense that as long as he meets his performance targets, nothing will be done, and that’s why most people until now have never raised these issues.”
With respect to the sexual misconduct, the final report, released in December, 2006, found “overwhelming evidence” that it occurred. The director left days later. (The director denied all the allegations when questioned by the investigator and has not responded to questions from The Globe.)
The woman who reported the sexual misconduct is still caught in the legal system, trying to find justice. Her latest hearing was last year.
The Globe asked Deputy Minister Imbrogno for an interview to discuss any concrete steps the government was considering to address issues raised in the story. A provincial spokesperson declined.
In his e-mail to staff, Mr. Imbrogno told employees to reach out to their managers, directors, assistant deputy ministers and to him with advice on how to improve the system. “Although we cannot change what happened in the past,” he said, “we can work together to ensure our workplace is one where everyone feels safe, valued and respected.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.