- Mon Apr 22 2013 12:10:00
One woman’s reign of terror at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal
They are the Alpha Females, Queens of Mean, rhymes-with-witches of the workplace and awesomely powerful.
Lifestyle terrorist Martha Stewart, fashion dominatrix Anna Wintour, assault-with-a-cellphone model Naomi Campbell, pulp magazine editor Bonnie Fuller and possibly — a matter of much divided opinion — Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently commanded staffers to get their butts back in the office, no more working from home.
Those of similar Valkyrie qualities who’ve gone to their (presumably) just rewards include stiletto heeled big-footing hotelier Leona Helmsley, Cincinnati Reds owner and Nazi memorabilia collector Marge Schott and Margaret Thatcher.
Add to that list a name that will ring few bells, unless you happen to be conversant with the vast bureaucratic apparatus of the Canadian human rights industry: Shirish Chotalia, until November 2012, chair of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal — the agency which, ironically, convenes quasi-courts to try discrimination complaints.
Unlike the other horrible bosses mentioned above, Chotalia didn’t create a personal brand from scratch, or ruthlessly dominate a profession by dint of personality and brains, nor did she marry into (and inherit) her position of imperiousness. She was appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government in 2009.
Five months ago Chotalia resigned, nearly one year after an investigation against her was launched by the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner. In what appears to be the only, brief, conversation she permitted with the individual leading that investigation, Chotalia maintained there was a conspiracy against her within the office of Integrity Commissioner Mario Dion — who had stepped aside from any direct involvement with the probe because of his previous interactions with the “alleged wrongdoer.”
Ethiopian-born Chotalia told the investigator, Christian Santarossa, that all of this scrutinizing of her conduct had occurred because “I was chosen by a Conservative government, I am a brown woman from Alberta and the unions want to remove me.”
It comes as no surprise that someone who looks at the world through the shape-shifting projection of a human rights discrimination magnifying lens would instinctively frame her fall from grace in details of gender, skin colour and alleged political bias.
Following that single exchange with Santarossa, Chotalia never again co-operated with the investigation — cancelling an interview scheduled in April 2012 and ignoring all subsequent approaches.
“Ms. Chotalia never responded to any of our further requests to participate and comment,” Dion writes in the scathing report tabled in Parliament last Thursday.
During the investigation, wherein 26 witnesses were interviewed, a shocking picture emerged of a Capt. Queeg character standing astride the command deck of the pitching CHRT battle-cruiser.
The report uncovered extensive evidence of a toxic, even crazy, environment at the Human Rights Tribunal, Chotalia’s reign of terror marked by the woman in charge harassing, screaming and spying on staff, who were chronically humiliated. Indeed, those staff members had first lodged a complaint three years ago, through their union, with Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, who fobbed it off on the Privy Council Office, which rejected it.
Eventually, the matter ended in Dion’s lap. Given all the disturbing evidence of “gross mismanagement” that the whistle-blowing Integrity Commission documented, it’s inexplicable why the ministry and PCO dismissed the allegations out of hand earlier.
Chotalia treated staff and appointed members disgracefully: harassing, screaming, spying on staff; speaking to them and about them in derogatory terms; impugning their credibility in front of colleagues; and contaminating the workplace by sowing misinformation about them. She belittled and humiliated, frequently reducing employees to tears.
“The result was a poisoned atmosphere at the tribunal, a place that, ironically, is supposed to place respect of individuals at the very highest level,” Dion told reporters.
But it went even beyond that, to outright lunacy, the madness of entitlement.
On the day of her swearing-in-ceremony — which also happened to be the day that a magnitude-five earthquake struck Ottawa — Chotalia would not allow staff to leave their 11th-floor office, compelling everyone to stay where they were so that the ceremony could proceed as scheduled.
She ordered one employee to carry a set of keys to the office around her neck — like a latchkey — “despite the fact that this person complained that this caused discomfort and pain,” the report discloses. She indulged in petty retaliation. She ordered staff to spy on an employee while at work and to report that person’s movements and actions to her.
She repeatedly attempted to terminate a staff member without justifiable cause and tried to pursue disciplinary action against another even after they left the CHRT.
She maintained a secret file on an employee, entitled “Insubordination,” even though that individual had never been advised of any problems. She demanded that staff be available around the clock, to corral her non-essential BlackBerry communications.
She accused staff of stealing items from her when unable to locate them, many witnesses stating Chotalia regularly lost these items.
She ordered staff not to cancel a trip to Vancouver for a mediation session, even though the parties involved had come to an agreement. She flew to the West Coast and then transferred to a San Diego-bound flight for a previously planned personal trip.
The list of insupportable conduct goes on and on.
Of course, there’s nothing that can be done about Chotalia now. She’s returned to the private sector, running her own law and mediation business, her website detailing scores of human rights legal cases she’s argued.
Dion does urge the CHRT to “assess the need for a workplace wellness initiative” — sounds like a day at the spa, New-Agey — so that procedures can be put in place for assisting employees who had been subjected to Chotalia’s “abuse.” He further emphasizes the importance of properly evaluating individuals — particularly attitudes toward subordinates — before the government appoints them to a position.
As someone who works for a female city editor and female managing editor — competent women who know how to manage a staff — I reject outright Chotalia’s woe-is-me contention that gender was a factor in the “conspiracy” against her. And I don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes about powerful and ambitious women who treat people like dirt.
But Chotalia’s clear assumption that an anti-female, anti-brown, anti-Conservative bias propelled the investigation is quite obviously part of her own pathology.
She saw herself as a victim while blithely victimizing everybody else.
The human rights racket created a she-monster.