A pregnant federal lawyer told by her manager she needed to stop having babies is just one complaint among many in an external workplace review conducted of the federal prosecution service’s Ontario office.
The partially redacted report, released earlier this month to staff at the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and obtained by the Toronto Star, paints a picture of an office where mostly white male lawyers get ahead, staff morale is low, lawyers are overworked and under-resourced, and managers are variously described as “tyrants” and “bullies.”
As one federal lawyer put it in the review, prepared by Hamilton-based consultants HR Proactive Inc.: “Canadians would be appalled at some of the behaviour of staff at the (prosecution service) who are supposed to protect the public interest and represent the federal Crown with integrity and dignity.”
Some federal prosecutors expressed a belief that to be promoted, a lawyer must be white and male — a “frat boy” as one participant put it. One lawyer said there’s a running joke in the office that there’s a higher likelihood a racialized prosecutor will be appointed to the bench than promoted at the prosecution service.
Other lawyers said in the review that there’s a fear of reprisals from management if a lawyer with a disability dared to ask for an accommodation.
“We as Canadians count on our government to lead by example, and how we treat human beings in government is important, so the fact that these are government offices matter, that the government is the employer ought to cause the public to be particularly concerned,” Ursula Hendel, president of the Association of Justice Counsel, the union representing federal prosecutors, told the Star.
The prosecution service mainly prosecutes drug offences, but also handles cases including terrorism and organized crime.
The review formally began earlier this year and was sparked by complaints from prosecution service lawyers to Ontario’s legal regulator, the Law Society of Ontario, about systemic discrimination in the prosecution service’s Ontario regional office, which covers locations in Toronto, Brampton, Kitchener and London.
A total of 66 lawyers and non-lawyers (56 women and 10 men) out of about 210 staff participated in the review.
“In summary, a majority of participants in this review reported a workplace culture and workplace practices that were unclear and/or unfair, had a negative effect on morale, and reduced overall effectiveness,” concludes the 31-page report.
The prosecution service told the Star that it will take steps to address the concerns raised in the report, and will be transparent with staff about actions being implemented. Measures being taken include bringing in a consultant with expertise in workplace health.
“I am committed to addressing the concerns raised by members of our office and to working with them and their bargaining agents in creating a healthy and respectful work environment,” said Kathleen Roussel, director of public prosecutions and the overall head of the agency, in a statement to the Star.
Hendel said the union is meeting with management next week to discuss the report.
A big concern voiced by many participants in the review was the treatment of pregnant lawyers.
Lawyers reported women automatically losing their office when they went on maternity leave — which made it difficult to quickly get back to work upon their return — while “the same situation did not occur when male lawyers take parental leave, regardless of the length of time they were away. Their offices were waiting for them when they returned,” according to the report. Some of the participants did note that women tended to be away longer than men.
One female lawyer was told by her team she was inconveniencing them by becoming pregnant. Another pregnant lawyer, upon producing a doctor’s note asking for a lighter workload, said she was told by her manager: “I can’t believe this; you need to stop having children.” The report says the lawyer was not accommodated.
Several participants in the review also reported being groped by defence lawyers, police and in one case, a fellow prosecution service lawyer, but said in the review that management’s response was often dismissive. “One person advised that a senior manager said to them ‘he sometimes does that,’” according to the report.
The prosecution service told the Star that senior management had not previously been aware of some of the alleged incidents in the report, including reports of groping, and will take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
“The report describes a number of behaviours that are completely unacceptable and that cannot be tolerated,” Roussel said. “There is no place for bullying or harassment in our workplace, and I cannot use strong enough terms to convey that there can be no tolerance whatsoever for sexual misconduct. I know that coming forward was difficult for our staff, and I thank them for having done so despite their concerns.”
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Others reported the only real networking opportunities to help with career advancement were drinks with the managers at the bar after work, which is not always possible for some lawyers, particularly women with child-care obligations, the report notes. One racialized lawyer said that “if you were not ‘buddies’ with Caucasian powerholders, including sitting at a bar or hanging out with them, you may not ‘go places.’”
Another racialized lawyer said they would overhear conversations in the office that were dismissive of diversity initiatives, and that if they challenged those comments or behaviour, they were dismissed as being “hypersensititve or having a ‘politically correct’ attitude,” according to the report.
Several of the participants in the review had also worked in other prosecution service offices elsewhere in the country, and reported that those offices were managed “much more effectively.”