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Exit of Virgin’s group medical officer raises more culture questions

written by Hannah Dowling | April 14, 2022

Virgin Australia line up at Melbourne’s Tullamarine at the start of the pandemic. (Victor Pody)

New questions have emerged over Virgin Australia’s workplace culture after it was revealed the airline’s group medical officer took stress leave from her role at the height of last year’s lockdown before joining rival Qantas.

The Australian reported the details of Sara Souter’s exit alongside revealing that its head of crew culture and head of people operations have also recently left the airline.

The news comes one day after Virgin’s former chief pilot Michael Fitzgerald took legal action against the airline, stating the business violated his workplace rights by terminating his contract while he was on extended sick leave, while simultaneously accusing Jayne Hrdlicka of “bullying and harassment”. Virgin told Australian Aviation it “unequivocally” denies Fitzgerald’s allegations and said it would be “vigorously defending the matter”.

Now, reports say Souter took stress leave from her role just one week after a Virgin cabin crew member tested positive for COVID-19, which at the time sent hundreds of passengers and crew into 14-day quarantine. She never returned to her position, and a few months later took up a role as a medical officer at rival Qantas.

The Australian added that Souter took the extended stress leave after being placed under “intense pressure” by the Virgin CEO in the days after the cabin crew had worked on five flights before testing positive in June 2021.

Souter was reportedly subjected to thrice-daily crisis meetings with Hrdlicka and the senior management team, which is said to have seen the CEO repeatedly question Souter to ensure the outbreak was being handled.

At the same time, staff who were forced to quarantine in hotel rooms were calling Souter and her team for assistance, before a dedicated support hotline was established days later, placing further pressure on the group medical officer.

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“Virgin Australia is unable to comment on the specifics of Ms Souter’s employment and departure from Virgin Australia,” a Virgin spokesperson told Australian Aviation.

“What we can say is that operationally, it was a difficult time at Virgin Australia as we worked through the impacts of the initial and subsequent spread of the Delta strain of COVID-19 in Australia, the close contact requirements across various jurisdictions as well as a vaccination requirement put in place by Virgin Australia to keep our people safe.

“A number of our teams were dealing with circumstances we have never encountered before, and we are proud of all of our people for the resilience and incredible hard work put in over this period to ensure the safety of both our guests and our people.”

It joins a number of high-profile departures in the wake of its exit from administration in November 2020, after being purchased by private equity giant Bain Capital for $3.5 billion, which appears to signal a significant shift in Virgin’s corporate culture.

In recent weeks alone, the airline is said to have lost its head of crew culture Ryan Bradshaw after nearly 20 years at the airline, and its head of people operations Jake van der Zalm.

Earlier, in November last year, corporate affairs chief Moksha Watts resigned from her role amid an internal review into her behaviour, after just eight months with the company.

Watts was instated in the role as part of a major management reshuffle in January 2021, just weeks after Bain bought the company out of administration.

Her resignation followed a significant turnover of staff working in her department, including the airline’s sustainability manager, a social media manager, two corporate communications staff and a government relations adviser.

While some staff from the department were reportedly subject to non-disclosure agreements, others spoke out about their recent experiences at the airline, and working under Watts.

Speaking on a LinkedIn post, a former employee said that following the administration and sale of Virgin to Bain Capital, they were “constantly feeling defeated and stressed” and “couldn’t switch off”.

“The stress took a huge toll on me physically and mentally,” the former staffer said.

“You’ve got to pick your battles and I ultimately decided that even my dream job at my dream company wasn’t worth the toll.

“Across the division, the stories were the same – or much worse. Almost every staff member across our departments left.”

Reports suggest that only one person remained in the corporate affairs who was there prior to the sale to Bain Capital.

Comments (15)

  • James Patterson

    says:

    A quick conversation with any current Virgin staff (especially ground crew and cabin crew) will confirm to you the extremely low moral everyone is experiencing since Bain took over. We are overworked and getting paid 100’s or even 1000’s of dollars less a fortnight for doing more work under a new EBA that they bullied their staff into signing.

    • Nerdy Nev

      says:

      Yes, things aren’t too good there. Bain obviously doesn’t want to spend any money on it, & are wanting to offload it ASAP, which is what companies’ like it do for a living.

      P.S. You meant to say ‘morale’……

  • Ben

    says:

    Morale, pay and conditions have never been worse at virgin australia, as a pilot with this company I have taken a near 25% pay cut to just $130k per annum after 35 years in the industry. The toxic culrure is impacting on the mental wellbeing of an overwhelming majority of my colleagues. Many of us are actively seeking alternative employment

  • Craig

    says:

    Is there something rotten in the state of Virgin since Bain bought it?

    With top level personnel departing, it’s like rats’ departing a sinking ship.

    Are there other problems’ with it that haven’t as yet, been revealed?

    Time’ll tell……

  • Former VA employee

    says:

    The toxic culture at Virgin was around way before Jayne Hrdlicka arrived. I think it’s quite unfair that she is being blamed for a culture that a man, now accusing her of bullying, enabled for years.

    • Rocket

      says:

      @ Former VA employee

      Thank you.

      The culture was brutally and corrosively toxic for a long, long time. The company was populated from the top to the local management level with imposters who have no idea what industry they are in – ANYONE who came along, such as myself, who had even a modicum of knowledge, experience and proven track record in getting results in numerous other companies, were very quickly drummed out of the place.

      When senior positions became vacant, it was never the best people, rather, the worst, most narcissistic and least qualified that got the positions. For the life of me I could not understand why, other than that those in charge were so woefully incompetent that they just could not abide any talent or experience that might show them up.

      The company went broke before Bain because that sort of culture cannot remain and be sustainable. We often used to talk about the only way of fixing it being to clean the place out from the CEO (the previous one to Scurra) down to the local management level and start again.

      It was THAT bad. Most staff saw the place as a joke and when the management (most anyway) trotted out the ‘reaching out’ and ‘going forward’ crap, everyone would just roll their eyes. No problems were ever addressed, people were just told to ‘reach out’ to someone or another.

  • VA Employee

    says:

    There would be very few people on the planet that weren’t very stressed during the covid pandemic.

    This news, and previous articles are more a reflection of an individuals ability to handle stress (both management and staff) and the decisions they make as a result.

    We are insanely lucky to still have our jobs as VA could quite easily not have risen from the ashes. Yes it’s leaner, yes it’s tougher but it has to be.

    Hang on tight because the next few years are going to be fun too! We still have Rex and Bonza to contend with, let alone the QF group who won’t want to lose market share.

    As flight crew, I used to get paid very well whether I went to work or not under the old EBA. What company in their right mind wouldn’t prefer to only pay their people when they’re actually working?!

    The culture will never be as good as it could have been under Paul Scurrah and I pray one day he comes back.

    In the meantime we have a CEO who may not be popular but she (under Bain’s watch) certainly won’t drive us into the ground like Borghetti did.

  • Td

    says:

    You can’t have bean counters with a smearing of aviation experience run or operate.an airline like any other business selling goods. It’s a typical scenario of a lot of aviation businesses where the staff are treated like they shouldn’t be and the operators think the workers are cheap human robots that can be overworked, undervalued , underpaid and messed around because of management issues with the ultimate aim of increasing profits for the Jabas sitting on their lounges.
    If it wasn’t for the in field staff taking pride in keeping standards high with the previous culture before administration this airline wouldn’t be doing as well as it is aiming for new ownership.
    Maybe it’s time for CASA to start looking at it as a total package as I would be worried right now. There s obviously more than one cog lose in this system and if you liken them to fan blades a major issue is just around the corner.

    • Rocket

      says:

      The company was an absolute joke way before administration.

      Morons and incompetents from the top down. Anyone with talent shown the door. It was completely unsustainable, yet, those who were in charge went around as they were god’s gift to management and the best in the world.

  • Nicholas

    says:

    The thing that in the Aviation space is a real concern, is the possibility that a coercive and toxic work environment can easily flow through to safety.

    Three meetings a day, whilst we don’t know the details, but gee superficially from the outside you’d have to think that’s dangerously close to harassment or bullying. Again superficially you’d think it would be counterproductive and give poor outcomes.

    Still sure the regulatory agencies will be well aware of these dynamics and be keeping a very close eye on matters.

    The Aviation space is a high pressure one at the best of times, having a avaricious parent looking over your shoulder won’t help matters, we also need to assume that the CEO is also subject to a surfeit of pressure, I bet the Bain Business plan didn’t assume the level of disruption that did, and still is, occurring..

    • Rocket

      says:

      Please spare us the ‘aviation “space”‘ – that’s half of Virgin’s problem. Too many people running around referring to things as a ‘space’ and telling people to ‘reach out going forwards’.

  • Kon

    says:

    I predicted at the time of the takeover that the previous benign culture of Virgin would be replaced an American style hard-arsed exploitive one. And so it has come to pass.

    • Rocket

      says:

      If you ever worked there you would know that the culture was utterly toxic long before Bain came along.

    • Bill Oreally

      says:

      Yep, I worked in the US for 15 years, and dog eat dog does not begin to describe how one sided the employee-employer relationship is in “the land of the free”. All employees are treated as dispensable and have limited rights by imposition of instant dismissal without cause, “at will” employment terms of contract. Bringing US style, one sided bully boy management into Australia benefits no one, and is a slippery slope to further division of the resultant us and them outcomes. If Virgin go down this line, they will go under, and old Al Joyce will be upping his bonuses with his usual glee.

  • VA Employee

    says:

    Hopefully the new head of Crew Culture will actually be invested in creating a positive workplace for the crew. We are in desperate need of someone who knows what they are doing, not someone who is only interested in making themselves look good even though their entire department is falling apart under their ‘leadership’.

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