Confusion over bullying and sexual discrimination on display in air traffic controller media reports

The Australian media is providing considerable coverage to the legal claim by two female workers against Airservices Australia over bullying and sexual discrimination.  Airservices Australia is a government organisation that control aircraft movement over Australian airspace.

The details of the harassment mentioned in the media are quite offensive and have no place in the modern workplace.

There are a couple of OHS related issues that pertain to the legal action and the media articles.  Firstly, the media struggles to differentiate between sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and workplace bullying.  Bullying has the most direct relationship to occupational health and safety but the others generate stress in the workplace and therefore the impacts, if not the actions, fall within the OHS purview.  The Australian Financial Review (AFR) (page 7, not available online) has a headline “Flight controllers sue for sexual discrimination” yet the article reports on bullying.  It quotes the women’s legal representative Josh Bornstein;

“…bullying thrives in an atmosphere of darkness” and the case would “shine a very bright torch into the recesses of Airservices Australia”.

It also paraphrases Bornstein:

“…the agency was workplace with “state of the art” policies dealing with discrimination, equity and diversity, and bullying, but there was a “massive gulf” between the policies and the real workplace culture.”

Here is the major OHS lesson in this legal action.  Develop OHS policies and enforce them.  This issue is money-for-jam for OHS professionals and consultants – “you say you have these policies, let’s go see how they work”.  The risk exposure of not enforcing policies is horrendous as the case above illustrates very clearly.

And it is so easy to trip up the employer, not that it is solely the employers fault.  Many lawyers and OHS advisers see the introduction of policies as the first control measure and often that is seen as enough.  A policy is an administrative control and, if the hierarchy of controls still applies, this is a lower order of control.  The only applicable control measure above administrative control is “elimination” and for many companies, this is just too hard.  It is possible to see the enforcement of the policy as the action of elimination or at least an attempt.

There are also several social and political background dimensions to the case.  Just this week, the Australian election campaign has been concerned with the importance of family (Tony Abbott – Liberal Party leader) and the childless career woman (Julia Gillard – Labor Party leader and Prime Minister) – an issue that Josh Bornstein is well aware of from some of the words in the Maurice Blackburn media statement.  The media is aware that the action by the two female air-traffic controllers, who are also mothers, overlaps with the current political debate quite wonderfully.

The media has also been able to link this legal action, by focusing on the sexual discrimination element of the claim, to other recent cases such as the Mark McInnes departure from David Jones and Kristina Rich from PricewaterhousCoopers.  It would seem the AFR was particularly aware of the “appeal” of this perspective to its professional-class readership and provide an entire page 7 to the issue.  Get ready for Catherine Fox’s article on the matter in next week’s edition.

Legal representatives are generating considerable concern in the business sectors by running a “case-with-the-lot” where legal action is taken under a range of  jurisdictional and legislative options so that f one argument is lost, another option remains.  This is good service for their clients but potentially bloats workplace issues beyond what is required to control the issue.  This is one of the major reasons why OHS professionals can no longer afford to compartmentalize their services.  They may have a particular area of expertise but they cannot afford to ignore the other, “softer” or psychosocial hazards in the workplace.

Kevin Jones

3 thoughts on “Confusion over bullying and sexual discrimination on display in air traffic controller media reports”

  1. You\’ve mentioned a topic close to me nerdy OH&S heart: policies and systems that genuinely match capacity. That thing of really looking hard at the safety climate and capacity of a business and only putting in place what they can actually implement. Sure, if the workplace pulls up too short on compliance stuff it has to be a case of encouraging them to try harder. But I get the impression there is an inclination to write up systems for punters that are way ahead of their ability to implement. Our job, I reckon, is to put in place a sound framework and provide the tools for the punter to build on that, it exploits classic adult learner principles. Plonking a punter in the cockpit of a FA/18 when they can barely operate a glider seems silly to me.

    1. Col
      There are many instances of companies introducing too many policies and polices that overlap in such a way that each policy is unworkable. My thought is don\’t bring in a policy that cannot be enforced or increase your audit/OHS resources to meet the safety policy demands you introduce.
      I think that many of the Australian OHS regulators\’ push for consultation with one\’s own workforce was one of the ways to help but it wasn\’t communicated well enough.

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