Sexual harassment at Civil Aviation Authority 'swept under the carpet' - staff

A group of current and former Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) employees has slammed the agency as an "old boys' club", saying they felt targeted after making complaints of sexual harassment and bullying.

They say the failure to properly deal with such issues is crippling the agency's ability to do its job - protect the flying public.

Two months ago, Newshub spoke to a current CAA employee who blew the whistle on what they claimed was a toxic culture and complaints being covered up.

Now four others have come forward - a mix of current staff and employees who recently left the agency.

They claim that their complaints about managers were "swept under the carpet" and that they "felt targeted" after raising issues.

When complaining of sexual harassment, they say they were told they "couldn't take a joke" or were "being too sensitive".

Now the CAA says its "culture is improving". However, the Transport Minister isn't so sure - and he's ordered an investigation into the culture at CAA.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford wants his staff to investigate.
Transport Minister Phil Twyford wants his staff to investigate. Photo credit: Newshub

The victims are united in their concerns - all say they suffered abuse at the CAA.

"It was both inappropriate comments and touching… extremely serious," one told Newshub.

"The senior leadership has been aware of too much for too long… and just always swept it under the carpet," another says.

They say staff no longer feel comfortable speaking up. The CAA accepts that complaints being covered up and not dealt with in the past is an issue.

"That may potentially be one of the things that has happened in the past that makes them uncomfortable speaking up now," CAA organisational development manager Janine Hearn told Newshub.

One person says when they complained about sexual harassment from their team manager, the complaint was upheld - and then the manager was "allowed" to resign.

"I believe that person should have been dismissed - sacked - without question," they say.

The CAA has confirmed some staff have walked away without any sanction, but say employment processes must be followed.

"We go through those steps and an individual can resign at any time in that process and we can't stop them," Hearn told Newshub.

One worker, a current employee, says their complaint also went nowhere.

"I felt the outcome was predetermined. I was actually made to feel like the problem. The manager was protected from day one," they told Newshub.

They say when making the complaint, HR told them they couldn't take a joke - and should consider medication.

"The issues are ignored. It's one of those 'Oh, it hasn't happened to me, so it's not a problem'," they say.

The CAA says it's standard to offer counselling. But one former worker says their complaint was also met with demeaning, dismissive remarks.

"They literally laugh it off in front of you - and just say 'That's just how that person is'."

Transport Minister Phil Twyford says if that's the case, that would be "completely unacceptable".

It is the case - the CAA's confirmed some complainants have been told they "need to be able to take a joke".

The Minister's asked Transport Ministry officials to investigate.

"It's an active investigation of the CAA's performance in these areas," Twyford says. "I've specifically directed them to look at questions of organisational culture."

Graeme Harris is the CAA's director - this is what he told Newshub in June when asked about how the agency deals with complaints:

"If you're talking about allegations of bullying, harassment, those sorts of things, then they're dealt with very seriously."

However, all these current and former staff dispute that - they say they've all raised issues directly with Harris in his office.

"Graeme isn't oblivious and I believe that makes him an enabler," one told Newshub.

"It's not normal to hear about so many people crying in the director's office. I personally don't see how anything is going to change while he's still the director," another said.

Civil Aviation Authority director Graeme Harris.
Civil Aviation Authority director Graeme Harris. Photo credit: Newshub

It was after Newshub spoke to another CAA whistleblower in June that these new informants came forward.

And they're are not alone - Newshub Investigations Reporter Michael Morrah has been inundated with correspondence, all of which relates to allegations of poor culture or safety failures at the CAA.

The workers ask how, if the agency is failing its own staff, it can be expected to protect the public. They say the dysfunction is a public safety risk.

"The culture at CAA does not promote speaking up if there's something wrong," one told Newshub. "The culture is allowing - or is breeding - the lack of integrity that the system relies on."

And they believe the Minister's investigation doesn't go far enough.

"I think there needs to be some sort of independent, truly independent investigation into CAA," Newshub was told.

An external, independent inquiry hasn't been ruled out by the Minister.

Now the CAA says managers are undergoing what they call "unconscious bias" training to help them deal respectfully with staff.

It also plans to bring in an online tool so staff can make anonymous complaints.

On Monday Newshub will have a lot more on this, including looking at exactly when the Minister first became aware of such issues and what was done about it.

Newshub.

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