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Denied conference attendance? Here’s what you can do.

As Researchers, it is essential to be able to participate in conferences, not only for our career progression, but to benefit the research program and the reputation of the Government of Canada. We must remember that conference attendance as well as scientific and professional society participation are not ‘training’ or a ‘perk’, but rather a critical part of how we do our work.

The importance of conference attendance is recognized in our collective agreement, signed by PIPSC and the Treasury Board (Article 19.03, emphasis added):

“The parties recognize that attendance at professional or scientific conferences, symposia, workshops and other gatherings of a similar nature constitutes an integral part of an employee’s professional activities and that attendance and participation in such gatherings is recognized as an important element in enhancing creativity in the conduct of scientific research or professional development. In this context, the parties also recognize the importance of research networking with national and international peers and active participation in the business and organization of relevant scientific and professional societies.”

More concretely, Article 19.03(a)(ii) states (emphasis added):

Each employee will have the opportunity to attend conferences, symposia, workshops, and other gatherings of a similar nature, which the employee deems relevant and beneficial to the research program or the employee’s career development. The Employer shall make a reasonable effort to approve the employee’s request subject to operational requirements.

In summary, our contractual language recognizes conferences and society work as an integral part of our duties, and management must make a reasonable effort to approve conference attendance when the researcher deems it relevant to either their career development or the research program (not necessarily both). It cannot be overemphasized that Article 19.03(a)(ii) places the determination of which meetings are relevant in the hands of the employee, not management.

We know that in many departments this is not what happens in practice.  This short guide will walk you through what factors you should identify in your application for attendance, how you should respond to management if your attendance is denied, and finally how PIPSC can work with you to resolve both your individual situation and some of the more systemic challenges.  At the end, we also added a section that gives some guidance on what to do about management decisions that were either untimely (e.g. unduly delayed) or unfair.

How to apply

While Treasury Board and managers in your department have the right to create administrative processes and policies that deal with travel and conference approval, those policies do not override our collective agreement rights. It is therefore important to continue to identify all factors that are important to your career development and the research program in your application, not just those requested by management.  We will refer repeatedly to the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board decision Outridge v. Treasury Board (Natural Resources Canada), which set important precedents in this regard. We suggest you identify in your application:

  • Links to your career progression framework, including requirements to publish, to be recognized by your peers, and to participate in the business and organization of scientific societies.
  • Sessions you are chairing/cochairing
  • Events you are attending, participating in, networking at, planning or judging
  • Any working meetings you are participating in as part of the conference
  • Attending presentations put on by students or others that you are supervising. 
    • The arbitrator in the Outridge case found that: “Management supports his work in allowing him to take on the role of supervising a student. It should follow that the student’s presentation should be attended by his supervisor.”
  • Regular/past attendance at the conference. 
    • We understand that many Deputy Ministers are specifically requesting this information be removed, but the arbitrator in the Outridge case found that it was ‘natural’ for a researcher to expect to continue to attend a conference regularly put on by a society of which the researcher was an active member.

While we understand that your management may ask you to remove some or all of these factors from your application, it is important to at least include them in your initial request.  This communicates to your manager that you are serious about your career, that you understand your rights, and that they cannot later claim they did not understand all your reasons for requesting attendance. If management threatens or disciplines you for “incorrectly” filling out your request by mentioning these factors, please contact your PIPSC steward or regional office immediately as their actions would likely be contraventions of our collective agreement.

What to do if you are denied or not approved

We know that all too often decisions by management about attending meetings are simply delayed until it is too late to register for a conference, submit a paper, or obtain an affordable flight. Not being approved by the time you need to start making arrangements is functionally equivalent to being denied, and in fact until you are ‘approved,’ you are ‘not approved.’  So these steps can be taken whether you are explicitly denied, or the answer has simply not arrived in time.

The first step is to understand why you were not approved.  As of our latest collective agreement, section 19.03(a)(iii) requires management to provide the reasons in writing upon request of the employee.  We encourage all members request reasons for denial, and to report those reasons to your local steward and by using our web form. While you can grieve if they refuse to provide written reasons, if they provide only oral feedback an option is to send an email describing the essential points of that conversation to your manager, and keep it for future reference.

While in some cases there may simply be insufficient funds to send everyone to every conference that they request, we know that often this is not the whole reason, or even part of it.  Remember, management has to “make a reasonable effort to approve the employee’s request” subject only to operational requirements. Also, as per the Outridge decision, it is clear that while management has discretion, it is not untrammelled and must be exercised reasonably. Therefore, we ask you to consider whether an effort has been made, and offer some suggested rebuttals:
 

  • “Too many people are going to the same conference”/”This is more people than went last year” – there is nothing fundamentally wrong with having a large number of employees go to the same conference.  In fact, if it is the most pertinent and useful conference in the field, it makes sense that it may have great value to a wide swath of researchers. Many fields also effectively hold multiple conferences in the same venue at the same time, to increase the networking value for attendees.  It makes no sense to obligate some researchers who applied to instead choose a different conference that is of lower quality simply because of concerns about the total number.  This was briefly touched on in the Outridge decision, where the arbitrator noted that his reasons were “at least as reasonable” as those of the other attendees.  This is particularly absurd where, the attendance comes at no cost to the department, and this should be challenged.
  • “We are cutting people to keep the overall cost under $25,000 or $50,000 to reduce the approval level”/”The total cost is too high” – remember again that management has to ‘make a reasonable effort’ to approve your attendance.  Cutting people from a conference merely to avoid having to request a higher approval authority is indicative of them refusing to make an effort on your behalf.  If there is money available in the local budget, and the conference is a reasonable choice, it is not reasonable to deny your attendance based on simply on administrative choice to limit the total cost (especially if this is done only to avoid asking for approval).
  • “This is not related to our Minister’s mandate letter” – remember that your attendance can benefit the research program or your career development.  It does not have to be both. Also, the research program may reasonably have longerterm goals than those identified in this year’s mandate.
  • “This was not identified in your performance agreement” – while we encourage members to preidentify conference attendance in their performance agreement where possible, unpredictable opportunities may arise. Management still needs to make a reasonable effort and exercise their discretion reasonably – simply saying no without considering your request may not be reasonable. Also, remembering that conference attendance and society participation are integral parts of our work, consider including them in your work objectives, rather than as training/developmental objectives.
  • “There are operational requirements that prevent you from going” – while in limited circumstances this may be true, this term has specific meanings that have been interpreted in legal decisions (see this article in PIPSC’s legal corner). Notably, the employer cannot unilaterally establish policies for financial reasons if they have the effect of denying employees their rights under collective agreements. 

If you think the reason is unreasonable, we recommend that you request a meeting with your manager and a PIPSC steward, citing Article 35.05 (c) of the collective agreement. Doing so ‘pauses’ the 25 work day limit on filing a grievance, which preserves your options. These meetings are generally not confrontational and simply show that you care about your research and your career.  Ideally, your manager will seek to find a reasonable remedy.

If the reasons of the denial continue to be unreasonable and no acceptable solution is proposed, you can file a grievance (example attached).  Contact your local steward or a member of the RE Group Executive to proofread and sign the grievance.  The sooner it is filed, the greater the chances of having the issue resolved.  The grievance must be filed within 25 business days of the final decision denying your request. A grievance hearing will be scheduled to discuss the situation.

If you have been repeatedly denied attendance at conferences and in society meetings, make a note of the impact of this in Annex H of your Performance Management Agreement, and in any submissions under your career progression framework.  It is important for your management and for people evaluating your career progression to understand when your opportunity to develop career progression evidence has been limited.  If the denials become chronic or seem to be focused on you in particular, talk to your steward about other potential remedies.

Remember to:

  • Document all steps of the approval process
  • Keep all emails related to your request
  • If the approval is inside a software tool that does not allow saving, take a screen shot of your request and any responses
  • Never give up on your career

How to help resolve the systemic problems

PIPSC has assessed that the treatment of conferences under the Directive on Travel, Hospitality, Conference and Event Expenditures (released 1 April 2017) is contrary to our collective agreement and so has filed a policy grievance to challenge it. While we await the outcome of that grievance, we understand that departments are putting new procedures in place to meet that directive.  As those are also very likely to contradict our agreement, we would ask that you take copies of those procedures and send them to:

The Group is filing departmental policy grievances where needed, and your consultation team can, in the meantime, try to work with management to come to informal solutions to mitigate the issues.  Most consultation teams include very few RE members, which can make it hard for them to understand and prioritize our issues – we would encourage you to get more involved with them if you want to see more movement on our issues.

You can also help by stressing the importance of government science and research and our concerns about program and travel funding to your Member of Parliament.  The government has stated its priorities in government science and evidence-based decision-making, and needs to hear from researchers and scientists where that is not working as they planned.  Our researchers are often in remote field stations where it can be hard to run an effective public event, but it does mean we work in ridings where few other PIPSC jobs exist, and our labs are often an important part of the local economic ecosystem.  Sending a letter to your Member of Parliament does not require any postage, and they can also be contacted by email.

We will also continue to work on these challenges in bargaining.  That said, our language is already strong in many areas. What is really required is that you demand that your rights to conference attendance be enforced and provide us information about when it is not.  While filing individual grievances may seem frustrating and intimidating, grievances  send an important signal to the departments and to Treasury Board that there is a problem.  Also, while reporting the reasons for your individual denial to PIPSC may seem like an extra step of an already frustrating administrative process, it is that data that will allow your bargaining team to make a better case that the current language is not adequately providing for our members.  We need data to make an evidence-based argument.

Some members have expressed concerns about possible retaliation by management if they complain about not being approved for a conference.  Retaliation is a serious breach of our collective agreement and our rights to fair treatment.  Specifically, article 35.05(b) states:

No person shall seek by intimidation, by threat of dismissal or by any other kind of threat to cause a grievor to abandon a grievance or refrain from exercising the right to present a grievance, as provided in this collective agreement.

However, there is little evidence of retaliation. For example, the Research Scientist who initiated and won the ‘Outridge decision’ grievance about conference attendance (Peter Outridge), was promoted and given a Departmental Merit Award for his work in following years.

Final thoughts

While the last many years have been frustrating, you are not alone.  Other members are in the same situation, and the public and the government are more vocally pro-science than they have been in a long time.  Our combined voice can be powerful and we encourage you to get in touch and stay in touch on this issue.  Your steward, your executive, and the PIPSC staff are here to help.

Please also note that our new collective agreement has this very important provision (6.02):

Employees shall have the right to express themselves on science and their research; while respecting the Values and Ethics Code for the Public Sector adopted on April 2, 2012, without being designated as an official media spokesperson.

Consequently, no one can stop you from talking publicly, including to media, about science and your research.  This includes at conferences: you do not need the approval of your manager to present your results (while ensuring you do not comment on government policy decisions). We do not encourage you to fund your own travel or expenses, but especially when your expenses are covered by another organization, nothing prevents you from taking personal leave to attend if you think the meeting is crucial to your career.  This is especially true for ”at home” meetings where you do not need to travel: you do not need anyone’s approval of your presentation.

In conclusion, conference participation is essential to your career and your research.  It is too important to not defend your rights.  You are not alone: PIPSC can help you.