Performance Review

This spring, Canadians were astonished to learn that the former head of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal – the federal authority responsible for investigating allegations of discrimination – was fired for “gross mismanagement.” The report filed by the Public Integrity Commissioner, following a two-year investigation prompted by a union complaint, found that the Conservative appointee “repeatedly harassed employees at all levels by referring to them in derogatory terms, by questioning their competencies in the presence of their colleagues and by spreading misinformation about them in the workplace.”

To some, long accustomed to the Harper government’s ideological aversion to accountability, this comes as no surprise. After all, a government that demonstrates so little regard for the environment and the opinion of climate scientists should hardly be expected to care more for human rights and the people hired to investigate violations.

It’s one reason why the announcement in late May by Treasury Board President Tony Clement that the government would be introducing mandatory performance reviews has raised such suspicions. The current government’s record simply fails to reassure anyone that new mandatory performance reviews will be implemented fairly or with actual employee performance in mind.

Of course, mandatory performance reviews are exactly what professionals in the union I represent want and expect to receive. Feedback, negative and positive, is essential if one hopes to grow in any profession. But Clement’s May 28 press conference gave cause for concern even before the microphones were switched off.

“There is simply no way that virtually every single person that the federal government hires is going to perform to the standard we expect,” remarked Clement, referencing rates of dismissal in the private sector of between five and 10 per cent.

Coming midway through the Conservative government’s third term and massive government job cuts, the announcement left the unmistakable impression that “mandatory performance reviews” are downsizing by another name – a sort of permanent quota reduction system tied to private-sector rates of dismissal. It’s not about you. It’s about cutting staff.

After all, it’s not as if managers have been deprived of the opportunity to manage employee performance before now. And as long as managers perform their functions, unions will continue to perform theirs. That’s the way the system is supposed to work, with reference to labour and human rights laws as the occasion warrants.

But there is something else in the air, and unions both public and private know it.

Where once the public sector set the standard for resolving many labour relations issues, now the private sector – with its supposed higher rates of dismissal and lower rates of unionized workers – is held up as the example to follow. That this is happening at the same time some Conservatives federally and provincially are noisily advocating for U.S.-style right-to-work laws and a rollback of legislated provisions that ensure all union members pay their fair share of dues is no coincidence.

The rights and protections of all workers are under assault. For evidence, one need look no further than Bill C-377, recently amended by the Senate, the private member’s bill that claims to make union expenses transparent (unions already make their expenses available to members), and which even Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has said “has an anti-labour bias running rampant.” After the parade of federal budget and financial scandals of recent years – from exorbitant F-35 fighter jets to the missing $3.1 billion in funds earmarked for fighting terrorism – the Harper government’s standards of financial accountability are as tattered and hypocritical as its records on human rights and climate change.

Mandatory performance reviews, while good and necessary in principle, are only the latest tool for a scandal-plagued Conservative government determined to divert attention elsewhere, advance its smaller-government agenda, and reduce the influence of unions. They misuse them at the risk of provoking larger disputes in the future.

Gary Corbett is President of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, the largest union of scientists and other professionals in Canada.