How Qantas treats workers mimics how it treats customers. That must change

New CEO Vanessa Hudson has said she wants Australians to be "proud" of Qantas.

New CEO Vanessa Hudson has said she wants Australians to be "proud" of Qantas. Photo: Getty/TND

What a month it has been for the national carrier.

Last week Qantas CEO Vanessa Hudson issued a video statement apologising to customers for letting them down and promising to return the airline to its national carrier status and a business Australia can be “proud of”.

Hudson reiterated these comments to the Senate committee she faced earlier this week, declaring: “We want to get back to being the national carrier that all Australians can be proud of.”

But the problems that have led to the dramatic demise of the once-great Australian airline’s reputation are not just a result of their poor treatment of consumers.

As an essentially fair-minded country, Australia’s collective conscience has clearly rejected the airline’s aggressive and adversarial treatment of its workers over the past decade.

The public’s response to the loss that Qantas recently suffered in the High Court for sacking 1700 workers was a powerful indication.

This comprehensive loss, coupled with the recent resignation of former CEO Alan Joyce, who oversaw the action, gives new CEO Vanessa Hudson a rare and unique opportunity to rebuild relationships with workers.

The slate is clean and ready for a cultural realignment to restore the “spirit of Australia”.

How a consumer-focused business treats its workers will undoubtedly have an impact on the perceptions that consumers have of it. Workers, if treated well, can be the greatest brand ambassadors for a business.

The opposite is also true.

But on Wednesday we saw some pretty spectacular scenes when Qantas chairman Richard Goyder and CEO Vanessa Hudson appeared before the Senate committee. OMG – Oh My Goyder!

Goyder’s Alan Joyce fan club

When Goyder isn’t busy running the national carrier, he manages to sometimes find time to be a boss of our national sport too, as chair of the AFL Commission.

Goyder, perhaps not having watched the news for a couple of weeks, or at the very least unable to read the room, didn’t seem to be aware that continuing to defend former CEO Joyce might not play well in the public hearing, declaring: “I think Alan Joyce did an excellent job as Qantas CEO.”

It had been a busy week for Goyder though.

Vanessa Hudson (R) talks to a Qantas worker. Photo: Getty

As chair of the AFL, he had to stay up late on Monday night and make a toast to Brownlow Medal winner Lachie Neale.

It was lucky for Neale, because despite being the boss of the AFL Commission, Goyder only manages to get around to that job when he’s not busy with all the other ones, telling Senator Pocock that for AFL responsibilities it’s a matter of “if I have the time and capacity”.

Rest assured, he does love his footy. He’s even reported to have captained an under-12s team once.

As for Qantas? Well, that’s OK too, Goyder says. He still has the support of the major shareholders – “about 14 of those top 20”.

And 14 out of 20 sounds like a lot. Pretty convincing numbers maybe. But who makes up the top 20 shareholders owning a combined total of just over 77 per cent of the national carrier?

Coming in at No.1 is an entity known as “HSBC Custody Nominees (Australia) Limited”. HSBC get a few more mentions in the top 20 too, in fact according to the annual report, there are seven HSBC businesses at that top table.

There are also five BNP Paribas businesses and two from Citicorp. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but by my maths 7+5+2=14. Lots of power, highly concentrated.

So, even though Goyder wouldn’t reveal to the Senate which of the top 20 make up his 14 supporters, it’s pretty clear that he wouldn’t get there without HSBC.

Another interesting detail? HSBC is also the No.1 shareholder of both Woodside and Wesfarmers, according to their respective 2022 annual reports. Goyder is chairman of Woodside and the former CEO of Wesfarmers.

Change must start at the top

A positive employment culture is not just driven by how a business treats its workers. It is also governed by what a business says about how it treats them. You just can’t have one without the other.

Vanessa Hudson and the Qantas board, which may be headed for more refreshing, are in a position to set a new course on both fronts and reap the upside.

As Dr Betty Frino, a human resources academic at the University of Wollongong lecturing in organisational behaviour told me: “Qantas were once very co-operative with their people” adding that “this is the time, and this is the moment to rethink the organisation and which way [they] want to go here”.

Australians want to be proud of the business which bears the emblem of our most famous mascot. The same is true for Qantas workers. They want to be proud of the business they work for.

Who wants to go to a family barbecue and deal with the inevitable eye rolls when someone asks what you do, and you to tell them that you work for Qantas?

This is the time to cast off the culture of meanness and hubris which has led to broad public distaste for the national carrier.

Consistency is key

This isn’t all about being warm and fuzzy though. Workers are rational actors and can deal with negative outcomes and bad news. What they don’t like is poor and inconsistent treatment, nor a lack of authenticity.

Businesses and workers regularly face difficult workplace problems, with different groups seeking different solutions.

But achieving the desired outcome is often not about who is the toughest or the smartest or the most well-resourced. It isn’t about throwing cash at problems either.

It is almost always about who can capture the hearts and minds. Who can inspire the confidence of the workforce with consistent, strong and honest messaging.

Just as smiling uses less muscles than frowning, dignified and fair treatment of workers can deliver dividends well beyond the alternative, without any additional cost.

The recent bloodletting at Qantas sets the ideal scene to rebuild relationships with its workers and their unions, but authenticity will be critical. The true value of that upside is difficult to forecast but it will be there.

And if the attempts to rebuild aren’t legitimate, the workforce will see through the duplicity.

Where to now?

For Qantas to move forward and access the silver lining of the post-Joyce cloud, open dialogue will be paramount. Messages will need to be strong, clear and honest.

Workers will be on high alert for duplicitous “help us to help you” narratives, and they will have a better sense for the business’ true objectives than they are given credit for.

While most workers will not always articulate their perceptions in a way that lands well with a corporate board, they can read the tea leaves and get a feel for what the business is really about.

If Qantas proceeds with limp and patronising dialogue, it will fail.

If, on the other hand, they rebuild workplace relationships with dignity and respect, they will reignite the goodwill of their most ardent and effective brand ambassadors.

But whatever happens, Vanessa Hudson won’t get the opportunity to make her mark on the business and seize the once-in-a-career opportunities before her until she’s been able to step out of the Goyder-Joyce shadow she’s in right now.

That creates a tough position for Goyder if he’s going to put the interests of the national carrier before his own, but no tougher than the position faced by the 1700 sacked workers a couple of years back.

A key difference is, unlike most of those workers, Richard Goyder will still have a couple of side gigs to keep him going.

Scott Riches is a former union official with the Electrical Trades Union Victorian branch, and a practising employment lawyer. He is also a volunteer in the employment clinic at the Fitzroy Legal Service

Topics: Qantas
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