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Virgin attacks ‘unreasonable exit demands’ in defence of culture

written by Adam Thorn | April 16, 2022

Virgin Australia 737-8FE VH-YIV
A Virgin Australia 737-8FE lands at Melbourne YMML (Victor Pody)

Virgin chief people officer Lisa Burquest has attacked departing staff’s “unreasonable exit demands” in a staunch defence of her airline’s culture.

“We knew we could avoid negative coverage relating to some departing staff by agreeing to unreasonable exit demands,” said Burquest. “We chose not to do this, because it is not the right thing to do and is not consistent with any of our values.”

The statement was issued following the news that Virgin’s former chief pilot is taking legal action against the airline over bullying and the revelation that the business’ group medical officer took stress leave before joining Qantas. The company’s head of crew culture and head of people operations have also recently departed.

In a new statement issued on Friday, Virgin said, “It is our true belief that our culture is strong and healthy. This doesn’t mean we will rest on our laurels. At Virgin Australia, one of our values is to do the right thing.

“Annualised voluntary turnover is 8.5 per cent, well within what is considered normal and healthy; and executive and management level turnover rates are also normal and healthy: 4 per cent voluntary turnover and 2 per cent involuntary turnover this financial year,

“A recent survey of leaders in the business shows that 97 per cent agree that leaders show a safety culture, 96 per cent say desired leadership behaviours are displayed, and 90 per cent feel supported by leaders.

“Of course, culture is a complex issue that is felt differently by different people.

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“Everyone who was an employee of Virgin Australian at the start of 2020 has experienced a very difficult and emotional time — from the lows of the uncertainty of voluntary administration and stand-downs to the highs of being purchased by Bain Capital who provided a lifeline to get us back on our feet.”

In response to the staff exits, Burquest said, “We understand that giving so much and going through such a difficult time can change the way some employees feel about their place of work.

“It is natural that some managers will not enjoy this much change in their work practices and choose to leave, despite the fact the culture has not changed.”

Virgin’s fightback comes after it this week emerged that former chief pilot Michael Fitzgerald is taking legal action against the airline.

In documents issued to the Federal Court, Fitzgerald argued the business violated his workplace rights by terminating his contract while he was on extended sick leave. He also simultaneously accused CEO Jayne Hrdlicka of “bullying and harassment”.

The next day, further reports then 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 claimed Sara Souter was placed under “intense pressure” by the Virgin CEO and subjected to thrice-daily crisis meetings.

Virgin told Australian Aviation it “unequivocally” denies Fitzgerald’s allegations and additionally said it wouldn’t comment on the specifics of Souter’s exit.

“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,” it said in an earlier statement.

“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.”

Comments (9)

  • Peter

    says:

    Being owned by a company which hasn’t a clue how to run an airline must be frustrating to the nth degree, for its’ staff.

    Bain obviously wants to sell it off ASAP, as this is their ‘work model’.

    Knowing that, it must be very difficult for the staff not being aware if they have a ‘future’ in their workplace.

    • Virgin Flight Crew

      says:

      I work for VA and am grateful Bain were there to buy us when they did.

      • Richo

        says:

        Very good point – same!

      • Peter

        says:

        Let’s see how you feel within the next twelve months’.

    • AFB

      says:

      It looks to me like Virgin has done a pretty good job, to emerge from a basket case back to a well working airline! There are always people that want to milk the system.

  • AFB

    says:

    Good comment, Virgin Flight Crew!

  • Ex Virgin

    says:

    Having spent 20 years in the place it is sad to see such a great company fall from heights as it has. The first mistake they made was replacing Scurrah, the culture is the worst Virgin has ever experienced with bullying unfortunately rife at all levels.
    Let me clarify the above, they surveyed their own leaders to ask them if they are doing a good job? Is that a typo? Either way, I’d be surprised if more than 10% of the workforce participated in the survey, everyone at VA knows the numbers are manipulated and the questions are one-sided (e.g. How much do you like working for VA? Options (a) a little or (b) a lot).

    • Also Ex Virgin

      says:

      You’ve got to be kidding.

      Under the guy before Scurrah the culture was absolutely toxic.

      The only people that survived in that place were the ones who’s departments were a joke, complete mess with no direction while they whittled away the days concentrating solely on making themselves look good. People who would can decisions made by competent managers (very few of those) because it might look good, then when proven wrong, would be the first to jump on the bandwagon and claim they were on the right side all along.

      These people prospered in VA, they would not survive in any other airline.

      From what I hear, Jayne has cleaned a lot of that rubbish out so sounds to me like she’s moving in the right direction.

      As for bullying?? The bar is now SO low that people claim bullying when they are simply given a basic and reasonable working direction or when someone disagrees with them.

      There are instances these days of people being given work instructions, their supervisor providing them with appropriate direction in the most mollycoddling gentle way and then being accused of bullying. The accuser is then given special treatment and tip-toed around for months while the supervisor usually has to come to work every day, with no contact whatsoever from HR under the stress of wondering a) what they actually did wrong (nothing is the factual answer) and b) whether this will be used to put them out of a job for expediency.

      There is virtually ZERO proportionality any more – places affected by this have become almost impossible to manage.

  • I wonder if the departees worked out of the Brisbane office?

    Every time I’ve had staff related issues in Brisbane they default to stress leave or accuse you of bullying?

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