Major report finds 'culture of fear' in Civil Aviation Authority

The new chair of the Civil Aviation Authority has apologised to staff, after a review into culture at the Government agency delivered a damning assessment of the organisation.  

The apology comes as CAA insiders tell Newshub those still at the organisation, who are unable to treat women with dignity, should lose their jobs.

A review, prompted by a two-year Newshub investigation, found the CAA's leadership allowed bullying, harassment and sexual harassment to occur, with many staff reporting a "culture of fear".

The 84-page report, produced by consultancy RDC Group, states the overall finding is that "the current and past culture within the CAA does not support a safe and respectful workplace, and in some areas, it is below the standard that meets bottom line standards for health, safety and wellbeing."

The report says the root cause of this has been "a failure of governance and leadership".

The CAA's chairperson, Janice Fredric, told Newshub she sent a video statement to staff this morning. "I said that I was sorry for everything that had happened," Fredric said. 

Transport Minister Phil Tywford described the report as a "chilling" read, he said he "echoed the apology made by the Chair" and told Newshub he expected swift action on the findings. 

"I want to see a programme that will fix these problems," Twford told Newshub 

The independent review was ordered by Twyford after Newshub ran multiple stories in 2019 highlighting the concerns of whistle-blowers who said allegations of bullying and harassment had been covered up by a dysfunctional leadership team, and staff endured a "toxic" workplace culture

While reporting on the whistle-blowers allegations last year, the former CAA Director Graeme Harris told Newshub culture "was good" and the agency was "on track and doing well". 

The report finds this description "was not accurate" and the CAA Board should acknowledge this. It also established that the CAA tried to claim culture was good using staff survey data that "was not statistically valid." 

The former chairman of the board Nigel Gould was effectively sacked last year after questioning the motives of the complainants, and Harris resigned suddenly just over two weeks ago - before this report was made public.

The report's authors interviewed over 120 current and former CAA staff as part of their review, and reviewed complaint files from 2015 to 2019. They found the following:

  • Members of the CAA's own leadership team described their peers as contributing to a "competitive and dysfunctional" organisation.
  • Some leaders "openly expressed negative views of their colleagues"
  • It found "some women have been sexually harassed" and staff have "undoubtedly" been bullied.
  • There were "pockets of staff" who did not know how to treat women and others with diverse backgrounds with dignity and respect.
  • Staff were "fearful of being targeted" if they spoke out
  • Managers at CAA and the Aviation Security Service have established "in and out groups", leading to inconsistent employment practices.
  • There "remains significant cause for concern" with the current CAA culture overall, and many staff reported a "culture of fear".

An extensive 46-page complaint from one employee was not investigated by the CAA Board, with the complainant only receiving a "short" email reply. 

"Many of the substantive matters raised in the complainant's letter were not addressed," the report states.

Minister Twyford was made aware of the nature of this complaint in August 2018, but said at the time, he accepted assurances from former chair Nigel Gould that it had been dealt with. 

Twyford told Newshub he "regrets the advice I received I think wasn't correct from the former chair and in an ideal world we would have responded more quickly." 

Twyford points out, however, that he did initiate and order the independent investigation just 18 months after taking up office, and says most of the issues should have been identified by the previous government.  

The report also found worrying issues with how some investigations were handled, including:

  • Asking those making complaints of bullying or harassment to "move desks" or "work from home."
  • Multiple staff who raised complaints felt "isolated and anxious" and "regretted speaking up."
  • Management and HR told complainants that they could not talk to anyone else about their complaints, even after the investigations were completed, which the report found only "fuelled conjecture" within the organisation, creating further issues between the perpetrator and the complainant. 
  • Some investigations into allegations of bullying and harassment led to the complainants' privacy being breached.
  • Investigations were carried out by managers who did not have adequate experience or independence creating a sense among staff of reaching a predetermined outcome and showing "perceived bias and lack of impartiality." 
  • "Unwarranted delays" in completing investigations.

Twyford says its clear complaints were not handled professionally and "people were let down." 

The report makes 31 recommendations. The first recommendation says the Board should acknowledge that previous statements made by former Director Graeme Harris to Newshub that culture at the CAA was good "were not accurate." The report also said the former chair questioning the motives of complainants publicly only further eroded trust that staff had in the Board.

Newshub asked Chair Fredric about this, but she said "I can't comment on the accuracy or not of what he might have said". 

 The recommendations, all of which have been accepted by the Board, call for a complete overhaul of how staff are trained, how complaints are managed, and says a review of health and safety strategies is needed. 

It also says serious complaints should be investigated by people independent of the CAA, and that managers review and amend all performance agreements so they promote a healthy culture. The report also recommends managers undertake staff engagement surveys "as a matter of urgency."

It also calls on the CAA board to acknowledge "past failings to consistently identify and respond to a poor workplace culture and the negative impact these failings have had on former and current staff, the organisation and the industry and stakeholders."

Michael Morrah spoke to some of the informants who he interviewed about complaints, including bullying and sexual harassment being covered up by management. 

In a statement four current and former staff told Morrah that the CAA has done irreversible damage to people's careers. Some had left the agency after what they say was "years of enduring stress and anxiety".  

They say "damage done to their physical and mental well-being was significant", and they would have expected the Chair's apology would have been extended to former staff as well. 

As for the "pockets of staff" who still don't know how to treat women with dignity....the informants say "they should no longer be employed by a Government agency". 

They say the Chair of the Board should start the process of change by publicly acknowledging that the former Director Graeme Harris' previous public comments were inaccurate and offensive to those who were victimised.

Fredric, who started as the new Chair in December, said she was "determined" to turn things around at the CAA and said staff not getting on board with changes "will be held to account."

The chief executive of Aviation New Zealand, John Nicholson, said he supported the review findings and this "was very much the start of a process."

"Much remains to be done as we see the development of a CAA that regulates and doesn't seek to control. But a big area of uncertainty for the many good people at CAA has been resolved. We can all move forward," Nicholson said.

Find the full report, as well as the current CAA Board chair's response here.