Transcript – Episode 7: Chat with Heather DiPenta

David Morrison: Heather DiPenta is the values and ethics guru here at Global Affairs Canada. She joined GAC in spring of 2017 after nearly 20 years in the private sector and at a series of other government departments. We chatted recently about values and ethics, the issues around harassment, including sexual harassment and what needs to change here at Global Affairs Canada. Hi Heather, thanks for coming to the GAC files today. You've told me you were all up all night studying.

Heather DiPenta: Fretting somewhat.

David Morrison: So we're not...we're not really that, that tough. Heather DiPenta is the Global Affairs Canada values and ethics guru. And I do want to devote the bulk of our time today to getting your thoughts on where we are at Global Affairs in terms of the expected behaviors, ethical behaviors and our efforts to have a values driven culture. And I want to spend some time on harassment, which is something that is of great concern to the clerk and to senior management across the public service. But before then I want to find out a little bit more about Heather DiPenta. So tell us where you're from and a little bit about your journey from...from there to here.

Heather DiPenta: Well, thank you very much. I'm very honored to be here and to be able to talk about these topics because they're very important to me both professionally and personally. I grew up on the Quebec side in Alymer, so I've been within this region my entire life. And I grew up in a household where both my parents were teachers, my mom an elementary school teacher and my dad a high school geography teacher. So every school I went to I had a parent that was in the school, so from a values and ethics perspective I had to be very careful.

David Morrison: I was...I was sharing with Heather just before we went live that in thinking of this conversation this morning I was going to ask her whether she always followed the rules in elementary school and she's confessed to having only a single detention in her entire public school career.

Heather DiPenta: Yes, that my parents are aware of no that I yes I only did have one and it was haphazardly for passing a note in class and the whole class got this in high school got scooped up and sent to detention and my dad walked past the room and looked in the window and saw his daughter in there.

David Morrison: If that were the standard applied to the executive committee at Global Affairs we would all be in detention all the time. There's a lot of passing of notes during long meetings.

Heather DiPenta: There you go.

David Morrison: born and raised here. But your name wasn't DiPenta.

Heather DiPenta: No it was MacLeod, a very Scottish name, Heather Anne MacLeod, but no I married my husband who is Italian and first generation Canadian. And his dad came over to Canada with the suit he had on and a hundred dollars in his pocket.

David Morrison: When?

Heather DiPenta: And that was it. I'm not too sure sixties but I can't remember the exact date. And then his parents met here in Canada and sort of the rest is history from there, but it has allowed me to get an opening into different cultures and really great food as well which is fantastic.

David Morrison: A little better than Scottish fair I think.

Heather DiPenta: Yes...yes and a huge wedding on top of it.

David Morrison: So unlike most guests so far on the GAC Files you have not been with Global Affairs for very long. You joined in April of 2017. So a year and some ago after spending the first part of your career in various other parts of the public service. Tell us the kinds of job... why you joined the public service in the first place, the kinds of jobs you've had and how that led you into...into your current role and previous roles dealing with conflict manage... conflict resolution and now the sort of prior step of the prevention side of conflicts which is one way to think of values and ethics.

Heather DiPenta: Well I think I kind of stumbled into the public service really. I began in the private sector. I've done a multitude of different roles. I mean my background is exercise physiology, which I'm sure you'll think is perfect for values and ethics. It makes perfect sense. But it just allowed me to take on a variety of roles within the public service as an ergonomist, vocational rehabilitation specialist. I did a lot of time, a lot... most of my career is in health and safety actually. And you know along the way I've done some accommodation work and so on, so a lot of the work and experience I've had is in working through workplace issues of various different sorts, whether it's trying to return someone to work and find or find alternate work for them if they've got a permanent partial disability as an example. And I think back to my days at Canada Post, if you can no longer be a letter carrier then what do you do? What's the next step? And that was my role to help the employee and management figure that out. So the situations that are difficult are emotional and you know in some cases are conflict just because of the situation itself in that there might be various different sides to the story. So that is interested me to really look and explore, you know, informal conflict management and also the Employee Assistance Program Services to try to get a better understanding of what are these various different sides to the story and can we talk it out, can we work through the issues versus continuously going to formal processes where quite honestly at the end of the day it's never really a win-win.

David Morrison: Where were you exactly when you had, for the first time, a job, a position, that dealt with conflict resolution? You were at the Canada Revenue Agency or Canada Post?

Heather DiPenta: There are several examples, because depending on the situation, I think we are always talking about a subject, then different opinions, discussing this subject for example. So, examples at Canada Post between managers, the union and an employee around what is the best approach for accommodating the employees – for example. Or to the Canada Revenue Agency around a situation of violence in the workplace and how are we going to handle this situation, when we see that the facts are really around a misunderstanding of the situation, then two people who take their point of view as the only point of view. So, it's really not often that I used these tools, but it was really for how can we have a conversation and be open to listening to views.

David Morrison: So, you know, the famous American statesman used to say everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. And yet it strikes me that in some of these really challenging cases often times the participants are really living in very different realities with very different facts – bases in which they believe deeply. So I'd like you to...I'd like your view on that, as well as, on the degree to which some of this intersects with mental health issues or can intersect with mental health issues.

Heather DiPenta: It absolutely can intersect with mental health issues. And it's unfortunate because we see examples of very as you mentioned very difficult, difficult cases where just the experience of having gone through something. So I think of someone who has experienced harassment, and it can be of various different sorts, it could be sexual harassment or other types of harassment. And what they've experienced and what they lived is their own personal story and their own reality with respect to this. And then when they bring those issues to our attention and say you know we want to, I want to put a complaint forward. And they start talking about what they have gone through. It's not difficult to see the personal impact and how much it truly affects them right to the core I would say. You know I don't think anybody goes into a role...into...into a position, a job, an experience in the workplace where they say, "boy I really hope I get harassed while I'm here" you know. Everybody goes into the job, in wanting to bring the best that they can bring. And I see so many examples of that in this department, of employees working well above and beyond on a daily basis because of their passion for their work. And you know over the last year I've seen many examples of that as well. Of, you know, longer hours or just really caring about a topic or caring about their portfolio. And then they're confronted with this situation of either a challenge with a colleague or you know even a more difficult situation is what do you do when you've got your direct supervisor or someone who's in a position of power start sort of abusing that power a bit. And starts you know saying inappropriate comments or, you know, perhaps in a stressful situation or in a moment of stress starts screaming at employees. When you're the brunt of that it starts to make you question, you know, am this actually happening, first of all? Why is it happening to me? What have I done? Is it my fault? Did I bring this on in some way shape or form? And then you know these things start to impact your mental health. They really do. And in some cases it could be someone that has starting with a mental health issue, they might be struggling with something personally and then something that occurs in the workplace is just, you know, the straw that broke the camel's back.

David Morrison: Sure. used the word power a second ago. And I want...I want to come to the definition of harassment and how that is going to be changed at least as it applies to the Canadian public service and what I understand is the near future. But it has struck me particularly since the #MeToo movement has gained momentum that much of the bad behavior that we have seen or read about, heard about is actually embedded within asymmetrical power structures where men typically not always, but men have the power and they abuse the power or the authority and bad things happen. And it...and it has struck me from the beginning that we at Global Affairs potentially have a particular set of issues with that as a traditionally male dominated organization with many many small branch offices unconnected or not directly connected to headquarters. So missions around the world typically run by men, typically very hierarchical in an organizational sense, but also a power sense and the higher ups controlling access to what everybody wants, which are promotions and onward assignment opportunities and interesting work and so on. So that to me has seemed sort of the perfect storm of...of...of factors for inappropriate behavior. And yet we haven't actually seen an avalanche of...of new complaints. So do you think that that is because they're not there or because people are still very nervous about reporting? Or what's your assessment as we're you know six eight months into the #MeToo movement.

Heather DiPenta: Well I think, you know, initially we weren't sure what was going... we were going to expect with you know an additional focus and an additional lens not only in the media generally, but within our department and really wanting to look at this and caring about this particular topic. We haven't seen as you said an avalanche of sexual harassment cases come in, but we have started to get more complaints about harassment in general. And when I speak with other departments it's a similar thing. So I think it has opened the door for people to feel maybe this is the moment now I can come forward. I think, you know, you hit the nail on the head with respect to this particular department in the sense that we do have a lot of executives. I believe we've got, you know, one of the largest amounts of executives.

David Morrison: I think it's 10...10 percent of the EX's in the whole federal government is the... is what people say. I don't know whether... how accurate that is, but it is because of our mission structure we have a lot of executives.

Heather DiPenta: So I mean that in and of itself shows that there or demonstrates that you know there is a level of authority, there is a level of power and that sort of environment I think the biggest thing we still continue to hear and see is this fear of reprisal. I mean if I do come forward and I do say something I'm not going to get that next posting. I'm not going to get that opportunity and I won't necessarily know why, you know, I'll get a letter that says well you weren't chosen and it left me with leave me with wondering, was it that I wasn't chosen because I didn't have the right experience? Or was it that someone heard that I had put in a complaint and had brought something forward and because of that, that's why I'm not getting the opportunity. So there's a lot of fear related to that and we hear it frequently. And unfortunately the process in and of itself and I'm glad actually the federal government is looking at the policy and looking at the process because when you're putting in a harassment complaint it's a very transparent process. So if as an example, you know, I thought that you were harassing me, if I put in a complaint you would be notified that I put in a complaint about you. Now imagine if we're on a small mission and there is a few people around the room. But other than that you're living with that every single day. Right? So you would still see your manager every single day while a process of investigation was carrying on. It's not easy.

David Morrison: Well it's especially not easy because those processes take a very long time.

Heather DiPenta: They do and they do for a reason. Because we have to have, you know, due process and we have to have the policies and structure is built so that it's fair. Because you also don't want someone coming forward with a complaint about somebody that's untrue. So everyone gets an opportunity to have their say and we can hear both sides of the story, because we need to hear both sides of the story. But it's difficult.

David Morrison: Well, it is difficult. And I think you've in a certain sense honed in on one of the most difficult aspects, which is a small mission. There is a provision whereby parties can be separated, that's extraordinarily difficult to do or can be extraordinarily difficult to do in a small mission. But it's a, you know, balancing the rights of the the accuser and the rights of the respondent, as well as, the fact that we in a certain sense still have a job to do on the ground. In my relatively short experience with these kinds of cases which I'm now quite involved my current position, things would be much better if they could go faster. You know, the well I would say if the wheels of justice could turn a little bit more quickly that would be in everybody's interests. And I also believe that one of the reasons that people don't report is that they're...they're not clear anything will happen if they do. Right? So I've long advocated or have been advocating for some making public of the cases that are resolved, so that the wider population would know that, you know, a charge allegation was made it was sustained, there was a process and the person at the end of that process was disciplined. That does happen but for a variety of reasons most people don't end up knowing how the story ends.

Heather DiPenta: And part of that is privacy protection as well. Right? We have to be careful I mean if...if you're the person who is accused of something and you know errored in some way shape or form you know you also have privacy rights as well. So again it's like the due process and that everything needs a balance to it. And in terms of the cases and things that we deal with, I mean we try to move things forward as quickly as we can given our global nature. That can be a challenge of trying to get hold of witnesses that have now left one location and they've moved on to another part in the world and we have to find them, you know. But those are just logistical challenges more than anything else. But we have to follow the steps of the process. I don't disagree in terms of reporting. I think we need to be reporting more and when we meet with people or when we're doing awareness sessions and we've been doing a lot of those especially given we're just finishing up pre-posting cycle and so we've been doing a lot of training. We remind people that you know the policy has a number of steps and and things to it. So you bring allegations forward and we have to first look at them and there's a couple of tests that have to be passed. One is that the events have taken place within the last 12 months, within the year. And also they have to meet the definition of harassment. And so sometimes. So it's a bit of a funnel effect. You know, we might get a few complaints in, but they don't proceed further than that, because it might be a disagreement over a performance appraisal as an example, which might not meet the definition of harassment. So, therefore it doesn't move forward. But every time we consult someone who comes forward to or someone consults us when they're meeting with someone on my team we talk them through everything. So we say, you know, if we can deal with things informally first again that is absolutely ideal. And then the timeline is very quick. We can resolve the matter. Some files just can't go away. And then we try to not to discourage people but to make sure that their eyes are open when they're going through the process. And I think there are areas of opportunity where we can improve things and I'm looking forward to the new legislation coming as well, which will again have a greater emphasis on the informal processes as well. And we'll have to see if that's going to pick up the pace a little bit on some of these files.

David Morrison: Yeah that's certainly the thing that I've heard the most is that it just takes too long.

Heather DiPenta: Yup, yup and it does.

David Morrison: Understanding that everybody's rights need to be balanced. Talk to us a little bit about the new legislation and certainly one thing that I learned is that a single incident can constitute harassment. I had thought until relatively recently that the whole nature of harassment was that it needed to sort of be persistent. That is not the case under the new legislation. I understand and maybe it wasn't even the case under the old legislation. But what...what should listeners know about changes in the legislation governing harassment.

Heather DiPenta: Well and that one single incident.

David Morrison: the draft legislation.

Heather DiPenta: Yeah the one single incident is something that has...has been there for some time. I think somewhat misunderstood because it has to be a single incident that's had enough of an impact on the individual. And you can have a situation where it's had enough of an impact on an individual. The new legislation, you know, again I think one of the key things that's coming forward is again that focus on informal conflict management. That's going to be really really important. And also there's links between this new legislation and the topic of workplace violence which right now is sitting under the Canada labor code part 2. And interestingly enough I was at the table many many years ago when they were writing the first version of that legislation. So the two are going to be pairing up a little bit in the sense that it's explaining better to people avenues that are available to them to bring issues forward. And the definition of workplace violence will have some clarity to it because I think it's a bit, it's a bit murky, right now. So I'm hoping additional clarity and language, additional clarity in process as well which will help. And one element that I think, that I'm hoping the legislation is going to bring that we see as a challenge as well is again that full transparency in process. We have a number of employees that are coming forward to us under, you know, the whistleblowing or wrongdoing act because under that particular act their identity is protected. And, you know, when you're bringing a file forward, especially of a sexual harassment nature it's difficult enough admitting that it's happened. But then to know that your name is on that file and it's associated with you. It's very very difficult for people so we've had people coming forward saying you know is it wrong doing in fact. And I'm hoping the legislation as well will help in that regard. The...I spent many years in the UN system on the development side with, there are many parallels to how Global Affairs is organized in terms of having 150 or 170 branch offices with frankly some very bad behavior. Things got a whole lot better when we strengthened whistleblower protections. We instituted very robust anonymous reporting mechanisms and very severe penalties for retaliation on whistleblowers. Is or is there a move afoot in that sense too...too or are you convinced or confident that our current whistleblower protections are strong enough.

Heather DiPenta: I think they are strong enough. I think we struggle a little bit with what's the best avenue to deal with the situation. So because what comes into our office is often a long description of a number of things. The...the managers screaming and yelling. They are also maybe citing Section 34 that they shouldn't be and it's just a litany of things. And then we have to sit with it and look at it and think OK well what's the right approach to take with some of these things. A number of departments have been considering and looking at rules like an ombudsman, right? Which is that sort of thought process that opens the door and allows people to come forward more readily and for conversations then to happen within the department to say OK that's you know we've heard about this and we're putting an end to that right this minute rather than waiting for a 12 month period of time for a report to say that we should end it and getting at it much more quickly. I think we're seeing more people come forward under the act and I think the act does protect to a certain degree. I think it can do more. But I also think how our department adopts that act and looks at that act and uses it is something I've been thinking about a lot. Should there be a different mechanism or a separate mechanism for people to come forward. Already our group is within the inspector general's office. So that gives us a certain amount of neutrality and I think that's perceived as such by employees as well. So it's almost ombudsmen like, but we don't have that specific clear rule where anything and everything can come to us and people can feel free and they know this is the one door and it's not the wrong door it's the one door.

David Morrison: at the deputy level there have been multiple conversations on exactly this issue because deputies and associate deputies are casting above for what's the best organizational model. In some departments or agencies do have an ombudsman ombudsperson function and others don't. Even within those that within the group that has an ombudsman function there are various models from a classic altered you know alternative dispute resolution function to more of a concierge one stop shopping function. The clerk has as you know has been very engaged around these issues the overall issue of harassment for many many months now and there is a process of foot. There's been a listening process afoot and a...and a compare and contrast process looking at how the various bits of the federal government are dealing with this. There is an interesting model that I was made aware of recently which...which is I they think they called it a wellness hub. And that was it had ombuds person or Ombudsman function built into it, but it also had the wider suite of...of wellness initiatives so that anybody that believed themselves to be the victim of harassment or wanting advice, everybody knew who to call. Anyhow I think this will see I think the clerks work will see the light of day in the coming period and then and all departments will have some...some recommendations and advice for how to strengthen their own systems.

Heather DiPenta: And I think that's great because I think as you said there are all kinds of experience out there of these various different models and what has proven to be helpful and what has proven to be challenging because all of these processes are what you would call the informal processes of having the discussion. You know in my opinion no matter what process it is that we put in place it has to be linked to the overall accountability in the department. So if it's an ombudsman or somebody that it is that we've decided or an office whatever the case may be they have to have the ability to bring issues right to the top and say this is what's going on, this is what we've heard and as managers, you know, we need to be accountable for what's going on in your shop. And we see equally the amount of issues overseas in missions as we do at headquarters as well. So it's that ability and this is something I've been wrestling with is in my role specifically because I wear various different hats due to the acts and so on is the ability to be able to come to you as an example and say, "okay I'm seeing a number of rumblings coming from this one particular area and some very disturbing things". And managers need to know or as the senior manager in that area needs to know what's going on and needs to act now.

David Morrison: So, I mean in my view it needs to be a combination of accountability as you've just said. But over the longer term it has to be culture.

Heather DiPenta: Absolutely.

David Morrison: I mean that's the becasue can either have sort of accountability and compliance or you can have the kind of culture where it's not just the managers, but it is everybody that...that calls out bad behavior and says that's not acceptable. It strikes me that you know we will know if we are succeeding when there are fewer uses of the protection function because people will actually feel empowered simply to call out as a work unit or a series of colleagues somebody on...on inappropriate behavior. Because in the recent cases that I've become aware of it's actually not black and white. often falls into what I think you would you have termed the toxic work environment. I hope there are fewer instances of supervisors yelling and throwing things than one hears about in the past because the goalposts have clearly moved. But there's still lots going on that is making people uncomfortable and...and we all as a community need to come together around what is today inappropriate and...and appropriate behavior. And that's the cultural element that takes...that takes much longer but which is ultimately more sustainable in whatever structure or accountability we put in place. Anyway that's my...that's how I think of these things.

Heather DiPenta: Well and I and I would agree with that thought process because I think there's multiple different aspects that go into that changing culture. I think you know the fact that you sent a message out and the deputy sent a message out to say related to the MeToo movement that this is of concern and this is not something that you want to see within our Global Affairs environment. That is the beginning of culture change, that sets the stage to say, so an employee can say, "oh ok you know senior management see this as an important thing and that it's not acceptable, I don't have to live with this. I don't have to hold on to this secret". And that's the beginning of change. Now we have to follow that up with you know program enhancements which we're looking at internally on our team, new legislation coming, ways of...of it allowing employees to have access to the services and understand what they are and know how to navigate the processes and so on. So that that cynicism of, is it just talk or do they actually mean it. It's when they actually mean it that the culture starts to change right? So it's I think it's everything we've discussed. The aspect of people being held accountable and employees know I brought something forward and something happened, you know, as a result of that. And all of the other pieces of it it's a bit of a puzzle. But I think you know bringing all the pieces together is what's going to change that culture.

David Morrison: And talking about it.

Heather DiPenta: And talking about it. Absolutely.

David Morrison: And bringing it out of whispers to say it's OK to say it's not OK.

Heather DiPenta: Exactly.

David Morrison: If you will, so in the spirit of continuing to talk about it I...I'd like to have you back Heather.

Heather DiPenta: I'd love that.

David Morrison: At some point in the not too distant future. Maybe after the we see the final shape of the new legislation and the output of the clerks process and the output of an exercise that I'm helping to lead in terms of this department's response to harassment and where the gaps are. We're going to come forth with some Global Affairs specific recommendations in the fall. So in five or six months time I hope you'll come back and I hope we can report upon some progress.

Heahter DiPenta: Well I would love to. And you know it's going to take all of us working on this file and talking about it and bringing this issue forward to make real change. But I'm hopeful that it can happen and certainly the attention that this department has been paying to this topic is a fantastic sign and the fact that more people are coming forward is a fantastic sign. It's not great to hear more issues, but at the same time it's good that people feel they can tell them.

David Morrison: That was...that was a disguised resource ask.

Heather DiPenta: Maybe only slightly, no I am just kidding. No, but then I look forward to seeing how this is going to progress. This is great, thank you.

David Morrison: Thanks for your service. Thank you.

Heather DiPenta: Thank you.

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