Fired public service exec awarded nearly $1.4 million

Employer made up reasons for termination to make advisor a scapegoat: Board

A former executive with Public Works Canada has been awarded almost $1.4 million after an arbitration board found he was fired to avoid a scandal and not because of the department’s stated reason there was no work for him.

In 2003, the deputy minister for real property business transformation in the Department of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) undertook a review of the department’s services to evaluate its workload, best practices and expectation. The review led to a report and action plan for good financial management of the department. As part of the plan, Douglas Tipple was hired as a special advisor to the deputy minister on Oct. 22, 2005. Tipple’s offer letter stated the position was for a term of three years, but this could change subject to the availability of work and the need for his duties to be performed. The deputy minister also told Tipple the plan could take as long as five years. Based on this discussion, Tipple accepted the offer and moved his family from Toronto to Ottawa.

Tipple’s duties included performing diagnostic work on the maintenance and leasing of government buildings, developing workplace methodologies, benchmarking costs with the private sector and providing strategic advice. On June 27, 2006, the deputy minister gave Tipple a positive performance review that stated he surpassed his key commitments and “provided the necessary leadership and strategic direction to advance the Real Property Transformation Agenda.”

Business trip to United Kingdom

Tipple and another advisor received approval to travel to the United Kingdom in late June 2006 to meet with officials who had implemented similar initiatives to what PWGSC was doing. The travel and meeting arrangement were organized by the Canadian High Commission to the U.K. and PWGSC.

Soon after the meetings, the deputy minister received information that the special advisors had missed certain meetings. It was recommended the deputy minister should send letters of apology to the U.K. officials involved, and the deputy minister did so, without Tipple’s knowledge.

Newspaper article set stage for scandal

A month later, in August, the first in a series of newspaper articles was published about the U.K. trip and the missed meetings. The deputy minister launched an investigation into what happened on the trip. The result was a report stating there was some confusion over the meetings due to scheduling and communication problems, but both advisors attended the meetings they needed to. It indicated the only meetings Tipple missed were ones that didn’t concern him and “both advisors appear to have used their time in a responsible and productive manner.” Tipple confirmed the report’s findings in a meeting with the deputy minister and was shocked to find out about the apology letters.

Tipple felt his reputation was being tarnished in the newspaper articles and he wanted PWGSC to set the facts straight in light of the report exonerating him. He was also concerned because documents he had been preparing a few months earlier had been removed from his office and leaked to the media, and now details on his trip had been disseminated. However, PWGSC adopted an approach not to enter into a battle of words with the media and refused to let him speak to anyone. Tipple’s attempts to discuss the situation with the communications branch were denied and PWGSC remained silent in response to the articles.

The deputy minister met with the minister over concerns about the newspaper coverage of the trip. They agreed there were lapses in the advisors’ judgment but it wasn’t worthy of firing. They discussed the viability of the “experiment” of hiring private sector executives, and the next day the deputy minister decided to end the experiment. On Aug. 31, 2006, he told Tipple his services would no longer be required as of Sept. 29 because he had delivered his key commitments, the plan was ahead of schedule and there were no major initiatives left. As a result, he said he couldn’t justify having taxpayers pay Tipple’s salary for another two years. Tipple’s email account was deactivated and he was escorted out of the building. His position was abolished and he was paid one month’s salary up to Sept. 29.

Tipple felt he was a “sacrificial lamb” offered up to avoid a scandal and he was being treated as if he did something wrong, though he had been exonerated. A subsequent newspaper article about his firing and a comment in the House of Commons that the people involved in the trip controversy were held accountable further damaged his reputation and caused him stress and embarrassment.

Exec’s job not finished: Board

The board found it unlikely there was no work left for Tipple once the strategies he had planned and developed were established. It said Tipple would have accepted the job and moved to Ottawa with the intention to implement them and monitor them as well. The three-year term supported that assumption, said the board, and the plan continued with other positions taking over.

The board also said PWGSC would likely have had an idea before August if it would have to lay off Tipple for lack of work, in which case it wouldn’t have approved his July trip to the U.K. and at no time before his termination was Tipple told his job could end before the three-year term. Since the investigation into the trip exonerated Tipple from any wrongdoing and Tipple received a very good performance review in June, there was no cause for dismissal.

“Mr. Tipple’s termination of employment with PWGSC was not made under (normal layoff provisions) but was a sham or a camouflage,” said the board.

The board found Tipple was entitled to his pay from the remainder of his term but awarded him only what he claimed, minus what he earned from other jobs after his firing. This totalled $688,751.08 in wages plus $218,076.92 in lost bonus and benefits.

The board also found PWGSC acted in bad faith in trying to create a reason for termination and its failure to straighten out the facts with the media and the House of Commons. PWGSC was ordered to pay Tipple an additional $125,000 for loss of dignity, hurt feelings and humiliation and $250,000 for the damage to his reputation and ability to market his skills. Including interest, the total amount PWGSC was ordered to pay Tipple was $1,358,454.58.

For more information see:

Tipple vs. Deputy Head, Department of Public Works and Government Services, 2010 PSLRB 83 (Can. Pub. Service Lab. Rel. Bd.).

Latest stories