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Bullying and sexual harassment rife at Airservices, says investigation

written by Adam Thorn | May 29, 2020

Although air traffic control centres will still be located at Brisbane and Melbourne, system integration will allow for dynamic switching of air traffic control functions between the two locations. (Airservices)A fresh investigation into Airservices Australia by a former sex discrimination commissioner has revealed an ‘unacceptable’ culture of bullying and sexual harassment along with multiple claims of racism, homophobia and gender discrimination.

Elizabeth Broderick’s report interviewed 2,171 employees and found that 37 per cent of women experienced sexual harassment and 50 per cent of all employees bullying, which, she concluded, must be addressed “as a matter of urgency”.

The investigation, commissioned by the business itself, also published numerous claims by employees, including:

  • “[My manager said to me once] Why are you staying back at work? Do you want to f**k me? You should wear a dress. We can see your underpants.”
  • “The culture [in this Tower] is totally toxic. It’s like Lord of the Flies or Animal Farm.”
  • “I am gay but I would never disclose it at work.”
  • “There is a poor culture overall. [There is an] old boys’ club which is more akin to a pub.”
  • “If you’re an ambitious female, there is no place for you.”

Airservices Australia chief executive Jason Harfield said, “Airservices will implement the report’s recommendations in full to ensure that we offer a safe, diverse and inclusive workplace for all of our employees.

“The report contains deeply disappointing reports of bullying, harassment and workplace exclusion that are completely unacceptable to me and the senior leadership team at Airservices. This behaviour has no place in any workplace and must stop.”

Broderick’s extensive report included 26 focus groups, including five all-female; 197 interviews; 81 written submissions; and a survey of 2,171 employees, a response rate of 58.1 per cent.

It came after a report last year by former Federal Court Judge Anthony North QC found the culture at Airservices Australia was so poor it could “compromise the safety of passengers”. It followed a previous survey of 500 employees in January 2019, which had similar findings.


This new report identified that 20 per cent of respondents had “direct experience” of sexual harassment, rising to 37 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men.

It also concluded that “urgent action” is required to address the “very low levels of reporting” of the issue, adding, “It is clear there are work environments where people do not feel safe to speak up or to call out non-inclusive behaviour.”

Some of the comments stated:

  • “While at the Academy/college, I witnessed an instructor there … make sexually suggestive and inappropriate comments about a female trainee, as well as multiple general racist comments.”
  • “It’s far worse here for women [than men]. I’d hate to be a woman in this place. There is lots of sexual harassment.”
  • [Two aisles] are renowned for the older men being sexually inappropriate and making sexually inappropriate comments about women to other men.


The report also found that bullying was a “significant and frequent theme” in the focus groups, interviews, written submissions and the survey.

Some 50 per cent indicated they had experienced bullying – 40 per cent in the last five years and 24 per cent in the last 12 months.

Comments included:

  • “Bullying is the norm here [and so] there is a high rate of absenteeism and lots of health issues.”
  • “My bullying occurred from my direct line manager from his personal phone to my personal phone, so it was not on a recorded line. And face to face with the threat of dismissal if I did not do as he said. This despite having followed all appropriate procedures in the books. It was his way or the highway.”
  • “I have been here for over 20 years. And I’m worn down. I feel unsafe, vulnerable, scared and anxious. I no longer have the resilience to overcome the constant bullying, nastiness and harassment. No one in a leadership position is willing to stand up for what is right.”
  • “I’ve had my head ripped off when I have tried to speak up or change the toxic culture.”

The report also included numerous allegations of racism, homophobia and that the organisation is an “old boy’s club”.

Comments included:

  • “The ATCs here make sexualised, racist and homophobic comments. If you call them out, they set you up.”
  • “Airservices is a boys’ club. Always has been. Always will be.”
  • “I’ve been screamed at, passed over for roles to less experienced men and sidelined. Do I think it’s because of my gender: Absolutely.”
  • “There is definitely homophobia and racism, certainly in the area I work in.”

Airservices Australia said in a statement, “Prior to its publication, we had already undertaken a number of key steps to address unacceptable behaviours in our workplace and drive sustainable cultural reform. This includes the establishment of a dedicated Culture Program, introduction of a Bullying, Harassment and Discrimination Policy, and the appointment of a chief people and culture officer.

“Most significantly, the review highlighted the need for courageous and inclusive leadership as a driving force for cultural reform. We have introduced a number of development programs to strengthen the capabilities of our leadership cohort.

“Further changes are underway. Our response to the report identifies the actions we are taking to build a workplace that is free of bullying, sexual harassment, harassment, discrimination and other negative behaviours.”

Comments (22)

  • Pete


    As the Vietnamese say, “ngôi nhà bị rò rỉ từ mái nhà xuống” (the house leaks from the roof down). The Airservices Board has some very difficult questions to answer. I would like to see the Chairman grilled by a Senate committee about why they either didn’t know that this was happening (incompetence), or why they turned a blind eye (complicity). Either way, the Board seems to be in an untenable position, and should be sacked.

    • AlanH


      Well stated. Totally agree.

  • Craigy


    Having worked at the Sydney Approach and Sector centre in the late 80s and mid nineties, I never witnessed the type of behaviour described in the article. Either I was blind or things have really changed for the worse when they moved to the two major centres in Melbourne and Brisbane.

    • Mike Jackson


      Agree. Flight Service in the 70’s through to my departure in 2000 was actually a generally fun place to work. Outstations never had issues, and the old hands were crochety but fair. Those that moved to ATC said it was a bit more restrictive but just as good. Except for one of my mates, who shall remain nameless, but he was taken to court for his sexism! Different times.

  • Jack Chomley


    A bad look for the Aviation Industry, fix it……NOW

  • Graeme Travers


    Clean it up. Seems like a public safety issue to me. We don’t want ATC’s distracted by the consequences of such behaviour when they are on the job ( or going about their day to day lives for that matter). The “Old Boys” should realise that they are just that-outdated and inappropriate.

  • Ex ATC


    As a former ATC, 25 years service I can say the place is a workplace cesspit. ATC’s promotes to Line Managers that wouldn’t get a management role in private enterprise in a pink fit. Unfortunately this promotion beyond competence goes all the way to the top.

    Don’t think that the bullying is gender biased either. It comes from all directions. One particular group had a suicide. That’s one that I know of.

    A putrid organisational culture.

    • AlanH


      This problem is so rife in so many organisations, esp public sector ones. If this article has any substance (which I think it might) then it comes down to the sort of people this type of work activity attracts. That’s what they need to look at first. Interesting comment that many ATCs are promoted beyond their management ability. Sounds just like the public service, armed forces, public transport, security services, etc, etc.

  • Scotty


    So are these “Senior Executives” incompetent, stupid or participating in this toxic workplace..? Surely it can’t be going on under their supervision, happening on their watch..?

    Its always so predictable when these “senior Exec’s” pretend they know nothing, but still want their $350,000 pay packets…

  • Former ATC


    Wow it’s finally coming out! I was fired for pointing out this culture. The senior execs are a part of the problem too. This bullying and discrimination goes both ways. I experienced serious bullying and favouritism was shown to the opposite sex even though I had objectively safer results. A few of us realised this and called it out and were dismissed on false grounds. They denied it. We further reported the bullying and they covered it up. The place is toxic. There are guys and girls who have been drunk through entire shifts, drugs (ice) found in SECURE areas, child porn, threats made if you don’t come in and do extra shifts even if it violates your fatigue hours. Passenger safety is a concern. I’m glad I’m out.

  • Ian R


    Well, nothing here is new. Such a culture is often found in highly controlled workplaces, e.g. Police, Ambulance, Fire Services, Surgical Units, Prison Services, etc. How to fix it is the key. Fixing starts with the Chief executive, and overtime identifying and eliminating (e.g. firing, moving, demoting) intracticable problem people, and of course lots of effort to changing the command and control environment to a consensual team environment. Hard, yes. Impossible, no. Takes time, lots of education and above all, recruiting people with good attitude and interpersonal skills. You won’t win every time…but over time things will get better.

  • DG


    37% & 50% is just the tip of the iceberg. Had the people who left ASA due to harassment, bullying or inappropriate behaviour been included or had a higher number responded these figures would be much more significant. Any figure above 0% is too high but like we’ve read, this is a boy’s club. I was subjected to inappropriate behaviour by a senior manager and went up against the bullies. It’s a difficult fight when HR leaders were part of the problem, not the solution, where do you turn? Pete you’re right in saying a house leaks from the roof down. ASA are always implementing new culture programs but it only works if the people on the roof are included in the change.

  • OldController


    Deputy Prime Minister and Aviation Minister Michael McCormack needs to hold the Air Services Australia board directors and senior executives to account for not identifying or addressing this years ago . Bring out the broom and find some new faces who do not make excuses for incompetence.

  • Lee


    Old boys’ clubs epitomise the worst in childish insecure Australian male ‘tough guy’ society.

  • Chris


    One of the problems I noticed was that ATCs that moved from line jobs to management suffered a substantial drop in take-home pay.

  • Jabiru Joe


    When I was in ATC there was a saying around, which in some cases, deinitely not all, was accurate. It was that you would be promoted to your own level of inefficiency.
    Think that applies to the PS in general, politicians in particula4.

  • Bill


    From experience in a different but similar industry, the people who are the main culprits are the ones who make it managerial positions because every one else with half a brain leaves.

  • Dave


    Disgusting, putrid, and shameful. The very worst part is that it’s known about and has been allowed to exist and perpetuate. How are we to encourage our kids and the next generation into high profile careers if this is the status quo?

  • Linda Weaving


    This has been known for a long time. Like the construction sector, aviation is dominated by men, and not those of a compassionate or illuminated nature. This report is a very poor reflection on the industry & likely to deter many from pursuing a career in aviation – not just women. Anyone with a conscience.

  • PJ


    A fish rots from the head down.

    Having worked there for 7 years before leaving, it is not just ATC that has this issue, is organization wide.

    Bullies protected, incompetent promoted, good honest competent staff driven out the door, jobs for the boys etc the whole place is a disgrace.

  • Colin Campbell


    Nothing has changed since I left Airservices as an ATC 20+ years ago. Management – read “mismanagement” – has been the common denominator. ATCs being promoted to managerial positions and proving themselves incompetent in that role to the detriment of the workers at the “coalface”. Thus I am not surprised at the findings of this report.

  • Ex_ATC


    Absolutely no surprises here, managers promoted to well beyond their level of competence. The CEO is a prime example along side of his coterie of associates. All line ATC’s in the 90’s then when the new TAAATS system came in they all scurried off to management positions to avoid learning the new system. Just because you have been around a few years doesn’t make you a good manager. I’ve personally observed ex-military ATC’s arrive at ASA who have actually been trained as managers and held positions of authority in the ADF who have been belittled and bullied by these incompetent fools.
    It is disgusting, these mini dictators (who can’t hold an ATC licence) treating professional ATC’s like fools. It’s no wonder good staff leave.
    These line managers will lie for each other to keep their limited power base intact.
    If the investigation was to include and interview staff who left in the last 10 years the numbers of those who left due to harassment & bullying would be horrendous.
    Nothing will change at ASA whilst those at the top remain in place.
    The board is being kept in the dark and any Australian Senate enquires will be stymied because if those involved.

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