Bystander culture, sexism, harassment, bullying of women – the HR lessons from the Red Arrows inquiry

People Management asks what people professionals can learn from the report into 'unacceptable behaviour' in and around the aerobatic team

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An investigation into the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatic team found a culture of sexism, harassment and bullying was allowed to flourish, with women reporting they had “normalised” the behaviour and many had "gotten used to it". 

According to the non-statutory inquiry (NSI), the 120-person team, which included pilots, engineers and other personnel, had a “bystander culture” and inappropriate behaviour was rarely confronted. 

Incidents were disregarded because women did not want to "ruin someone's career" over behaviour that they had become accustomed to policing, or they did not want to harm the squadron's operational productivity. 

The report also revealed how women would organise themselves on social events in "shark watch" mode to defend one another from unwanted advances. 

The report outlined multiple instances of "shockingly inappropriate" and "sometimes predatory” behaviour, according to Robert Courts, chair of the defence committee, adding that there were "serious cultural problems" running deep within the unit.

“It is particularly concerning that the investigators warn that the squadron was not a safe environment for females, concluding that it was highly likely that women would be subject to illegal sexual harassment,” he said.

“No service personnel should be made to feel unsafe by their colleagues. These are the very people who should protect them.”

Responding to the inquiry, Sir Richard Knighton, chief of the air staff and professional head of the RAF, offered his "unreserved apologies to any individuals that were subjected to unacceptable behaviours during their association with the Red Arrows".

Several actions have already been taken and he is personally "intent on rebuilding public trust in one of our highest profile units", Knighton added. Read his comments in full below.

People Management spoke with experts about how HR can begin to tackle toxic cultures in the workplace and the role top executives and managers play in protecting women at work.

The inquiry 

According to the 72-page report, the NSI review team discovered women in the squadron were frequently treated as if they were the "property" of male colleagues.

Incidents of harassment occurred in public or in groups of personnel, which were corroborated by witnesses of all genders. 

The review said: “When harassing behaviour was described it was directed predominantly towards females and this type of conduct would have the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

“The NSI review team were concerned that the squadron was not a safe environment for females and that it was highly likely that females would be subject to unlawful harassment because of their sex.”

Unwanted physical contact, unwanted text messages and those of a sexual nature from male colleagues were among the behaviours described. 

In addition, the report found there was pressure to respond to those messages and “manage” the situation rather than raising a formal complaint so as not to be seen as being over sensitive or a “typical woman”.

Tackle inappropriate behaviour head on 

According to the report, women felt concerned they were not showing moral courage by not speaking out and that they could be enabling the situation to happen to other women. But it noted: “They had to balance this against the reality that they felt likely to suffer a detriment on a day-to-day basis and they had worked hard to get where they were and they did not want to sacrifice their position.”

Sarah Atherton, chair of the defence sub-committee on women in the armed forces, says victims of harassment often feel unable to speak out for fear that they will hurt their career or the careers of their colleagues. “Women often feel the risk of being stereotyped as sensitive or hysterical and perpetrators hide behind banter,” she says, adding that “we need fundamental change”. 

Kate Palmer, HR advice and consultancy director, tells People Management that the disclosures about the Red Arrows are a "stark reminder" of why it is critical to tackle inappropriate behaviour head on. "Seemingly, the almost celebrity-like status of certain members of the team led to a failure by leadership to stop behaviour that was inappropriate and damaging to those around them," she says. 

This is not an issue reserved for the armed forces, according to Palmer, who says businesses of any size can be affected if the focus of praise and attention is on an individual's triumphs while turning "a blind eye to their indiscretions”.

“Ultimately, while that could lead to some short-term gain, long-term it is likely to damage employee relations and retention and even risk the employer facing tribunal proceedings for failing to stop questionable behaviour,” she says. 

Palmer adds that applying disciplinary procedures fairly and consistently is therefore “imperative” when it comes to managing employee behaviour, even where the employee is considered to have “star status”.

No safety in speaking truth to power 

The non-statutory probe was launched in 2021 by the RAF after three women approached the then head of the RAF with complaints that had not been addressed by their chain of command.

Dominic Monkhouse, CEO and founder of Monkhouse & Co, says there is no "psychological safety" at firms that develop toxic work cultures where workers are afraid to speak up, meaning employees may feel there is no safety in “speaking truth to power”.

“These pilots knew the power they had and abused it. There was no trust; the locker room banter and camaraderie were at the expense of others,” says Monkhouse.

He says this was down to leaders failing to develop trust, intervene in wrongdoing and preserve ideals, adding that "your culture is a reflection of the behaviours you tolerate". 

Monkhouse says culture transformation is "hard", and that it takes a serious look at the leadership and the “toxicity” they are allowing to spread, "not just of a few bad apples, but of a whole rotten barrel", to turn the culture around and create a safe environment for all team members.

Women should have a safe space to work 

According to the investigation, there was a drinking culture, with undesirable behaviour by male employees often fuelled by alcohol. 

It also identified a "high propensity" for extramarital relationships among military members, which may have contributed to a "generally negative opinion" of women service personnel. 

“Close relationships do develop in the workplace,” says Martin Williams, partner and head of employment at Mayo Wynne Baxter, but this becomes an issue when men in senior positions “take advantage of their role to seduce those they are meant to supervise”. 

“When men think they are special and feel they can act with impunity, women are in danger. What may appear to be a reciprocal relation, proceeding based on consent, is no such thing if deception is at the heart of it,” says Williams. 

He adds that women should be able to work in a safe environment free of individuals who see “sexual conquest” as an extension of their power and ego.

“Fine words in a report must be followed up with action to ensure the previously prevailing culture of male exceptionalism is eradicated,” he says, adding that this can only be done if all the “perpetrators are dealt with” including the enablers at the top of the tree.

RAF reacts

Sir Knighton expressed shock at the report. He said: “I want first to say that I am sorry and offer my unreserved apologies to any individuals that were subjected to unacceptable behaviours during their association with the Red Arrows, particularly the three women who felt they had no option but to raise their complaints directly with my predecessor.” 

He added: “The findings of the investigations are clear. Actions have been taken against several individuals, up to and including dismissal from the service.

“The behaviour of a minority of individuals has harmed the squadron’s reputation and that of the Royal Air Force. Like my predecessor, I am intent on rebuilding public trust in one of our highest-profile units. I know that the current team is working hard to do just that.” 

The RAF has listed a series of recommendations following the findings. Read them in full under the subheading ‘Summary of recommendations from Initial NSI Report’ here.

Read the CIPD guide to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace here