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What Businesses Can Learn from Canada’s Governor General Scandal

Kelly VanBuskirk, Q.C., PhD, C. Arb. (c) 2021-01-31

Not many human resources disasters are played out in the media the way that Julie Payette’s departure from Rideau Hall has been. Because that’s the case, a postmortem into the former Governor General’s appointment, her turbulent times in office and her predictable resignation provides business leaders everywhere with a crash course in career and business-saving HR practices. Here a four lessons that every manager should take away from the tragic story of the Queen, the Prime Minister, Julie Payette, an embarrassed country, and a legion of affected employees.

1. Job design matters more than you might think. Before hiring to fill a position, it is crucial to understand and pay careful attention to the functions of the position. Without that knowledge, hiring becomes little more than a spin of the imaginary employee roulette wheel, because matching an individual’s character and skills to the job tasks is an impossibility. For example, if the job in question involves initiating discussions with strangers, hiring an introvert – even a highly intelligent one – will result in an impossible fit. In the case of Julie Payette, the extent to which the Prime Minister’s Office factored the job design of the Governor General’s office into her appointment can surely be questioned.

Writing of Lord Monck, the Governor General between 1861-1868, W.L. Morton stated that the Governor General’s character 'is of more than usual importance to a man who, by the nature of his office, must persuade rather than command.’ [1] This is a prophetic observation now, in light of Julie Payette’s difficulties with the staff of Rideau Hall and others that have been affected by her leadership style, and responsibility for this misalignment of the nature of the office and Payette’s character falls on the person or people who appointed her.

2. Character, personality, and capacity must align with the job. Understanding what a job entails is only one half of the successful hiring equation. Business leaders must also make mature and restrained decisions regarding candidates who truly match the requirements of the position. Exercising maturity and restraint in hiring is not easy for some, as demonstrated in one study that found 30% of interviewers made up their minds on job candidates within the first five minutes of their interviews.[2] Remember, too, that the length of a hiring process and the time taken to decide on hiring are two different things; in the case of appointing Ms. Payette as Governor General, it may have been the case that the Government’s choice was made far more quickly and with less discernment than the length of the appointment process suggests.

Exercising and documenting hiring discernment processes is a lesson that business leaders should take away from the Governor General controversy. Although much is now being made of Julie Payette’s past workplace conflicts at the Montreal Science Centre, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Space Agency as well as conflicts with her ex-husband, in fairness to Payette it must be remembered that these are only indications, and not confirmations, of her character. The influential philosopher David Hume illuminated the distinction between conduct and character in this way: "Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil.... For as actions are objects of our moral sentiment, so far only as they are indications of the internal character, passions, and affections…”[3] We all know that each of these now prominent clashes have a backstory that has not been fully unearthed, and it seems unfair that we would now judge Payette on the strength of them. But it is confirmed that the Government did something tangible to reconcile Ms. Payette’s past clashes with the requirements of the Governor General’s role, it is fair to criticize the appointment process that put her in a position that fundamentally requires collaboration and persuasion over command and control.

3. The individual you hire must be able to live the values of the organization. As a business leader, you can seek out and hire people with incredible intellect and talent, but their success in your organization will depend on their alignment with your values. In the case of the Governor General, some of those values are reflected in the duties of the position as published on the office’s official website:

“…the governor general encourages dialogue, nurtures a sense of shared purpose, identity, compassion and achievement, and promotes respect for the diverse experiences, backgrounds and perspectives of all Canadians. In all things, the governor general fosters a spirit of inclusiveness that views diversity as a strength to be celebrated and encouraged”; and “As representatives of the Crown, the governor general and provincial lieutenant governors act on The Queen’s behalf.”

Had anyone really considered the values that the Governor General is supposed to embody, Ms. Payette would likely not have been appointed to the position, for at least two reasons. First, based on reports of her behaviours in both the Governor General role and past employment, it seems that tolerance, inclusiveness, and compassion may not be the strongest of her many attributes. Second, and, relatedly, her expressed views on religion seemed impossible to square with the requirement of respect for diversity or, fundamentally, responsible representation of the Queen. On these points, think back to November 2017, when Ms. Payette openly mocked the religious beliefs that contribute to the personal identities of some Canadians. Think back to November 2017, when her blistering and public mockery of religious believers made headlines. Was it problematic that Ms. Payette was not a religious believer? Of course not. It was, however, clearly incongruent for her to deride some of the very citizens that she was supposed to include and embrace, for the sake of diversity. Further, it was also a bizarre rant for the Queen’s representative in Canada to make, given that the Queen is the Head of both the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The Government ought to have known, and the Prime Minister’s press statement the following day suggested that he did know, that Ms. Payette’s anti-religious views could emerge as a divisive and offensive attack on some Canadians and, additionally, important allies (current and former leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, U.S. President Joe Biden, former U.S. President Barack Obama, to name a few). The fact that this possibility was overlooked is not excusable.

4. On departure from the organizational course, someone has to re-calibrate – fast. Contrary to popular opinion, the rumblings of discontent at Rideau Hall did not suddenly surface in 2020. Rather, both the 2018 and 2019 Public Service Employee Surveys provided evidence that human relations at Rideau Hall were off track. The fact that it took a journalistic investigation into the problems to bring about a resolution to the issues may prove to be the most tragic aspect of the Payette calamity, which was avoidable.

Interpersonal conflict is inevitable in workplaces. Data tell us that the majority of workers experience work-related harassment, and so the notion that we can avoid conflict at work is misguided. But business leaders have to develop targeted skills to address and resolve workplace disputes before they mushroom out of control, and it would appear that the responses of our Government and Rideau Hall itself to the long-existing warning signs of danger could have been better. Business leaders have to know that, once their organizations have departed their charted course of appropriate behaviour, the chance of unintentionally bouncing back on course is much less likely than running completely aground. Hoping that interpersonal conflicts will resolve themselves is nothing more than an avoidance mechanism that seldom works.

There are a number of victims in the case of Ms. Payette’s questionable appointment as Governor General, including a number of Rideau Hall employees, the Canadian public, the Queen, and Ms. Payette herself. Business leaders would be reckless to overlook the Human Resources lessons that this tragedy offers, and for the sake of people we hire and the employees that those people manage, careful attention to the Governor General scandal is warranted.

[1] W.L. Morton, 'Lord Monck, His Friends, and the Nationalizing of the British Empire’, in Character and Circumstance: Essays in Honour of Donald Grant Creighton, John S. Moir, ed. (Toronto: Macmillan, 1970), 47. [2] Frieder, Rachel E., et al. “How Quickly Do Interviewers Reach Decisions? An Examination of Interviewers’ Decision-Making Time across Applicants.” Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, vol. 89, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 223–248 [3] Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. (Henry Regery ed., 1965), 100-102.

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