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Nikita Puri co-reported this story.

Few corporate leaders have been as divisive – or as much of a contradiction – as AirAsia Group’s CEO, Tony Fernandes.

Though a recent AirAsia town hall drew scathing criticism from the public for condoning apparent sexism and unprofessionalism, as well as the unwarranted humiliation of an employee by high-ranking executives, staunch loyalists of the Malaysia-based airline – and Fernandes himself – have been quick to defend the incident.

AirAsia Group CEO Tony Fernandes

For many of the over 500 AirAsia employees in attendance, the public display of such behavior from the conglomerate’s leaders was shocking to witness.

The incident at the company, highly regarded by many employees as being both progressive and inclusive, was especially disconcerting given the countless opportunities it has afforded to staff members, regardless of their gender or race.

But this sort of conduct is considered run-of-the-mill for Fernandes and senior management staff within his inner circle, according to nine current and former AirAsia employees familiar with Fernandes and the company whom Tech in Asia interviewed. The sources have requested anonymity for fear of retribution.

“What you saw that day [in the town hall] – about bringing a girl to [AirAsia’s head of ecommerce] Ben Jie – that happens all the time. It wasn’t one-off behavior,” says a former staff member who spoke to Tech in Asia. In meetings, Fernandes “would say ‘Hey, have you had sex with her? No wonder you’re not thinking straight today’ – and these weren’t one-off statements,” the source adds.

The casual F-word that AirAsia Thailand CEO Tassapon Bijleveld – a long-time friend of Fernandes – directed at an AirAsia employee wasn’t an isolated incident either.

The use of expletives “happens all the time” within the company, says a former employee, who admits to having used such language as well. “Curse words are not that big of a deal… But when you use it against people, then it becomes a bit of a problem.”

Adina Zainin, who is the group head of communications at AirAsia, tells Tech in Asia in an email response that the company’s work culture is characterized by “a diverse workforce and policies that ensure fair treatment of all employees regardless of age, race, religion, orientation, and others.”

The viral video of the town hall meeting has drawn mixed reactions from inside the company. For many, the incident has left a bad taste in their mouth.

“The prevailing sentiment in my network is disappointment since there has been so much emphasis on fairness and inclusiveness,” says one senior manager, mentioning a recent “progressive” internal company survey on LGBT acceptance at the workplace.

Another employee expressed genuine surprise at the episode and said it should never have happened. “In all of my time being here, I have never seen an incident like this, so it’s not the norm,” says the employee, who has worked at the company for just over a year.

A screenshot of the AirAsia town hall which has since gone viral

What is construed as friendly banter between colleagues may seem very offensive to people on the outside, says an ex-employee. “What we saw in the video may not have been the best of ways for leadership to handle the situation, but a lot also depends on the rank and file of the person in question.” The woman on the receiving end of the harsh remarks from the chief of the airline’s Thai operations is a senior manager at an AirAsia subsidiary.

“If people are one position up or down, then there’s a likelihood that there’s a pre-existing equation between them, and the interaction we saw won’t be very out of place. But it’s a problem if they don’t have that equation,” the ex-employee says.

Between expressing shock and giving the people involved the benefit of the doubt, there were also those who didn’t even bat an eye. “Some of my ex-colleagues are saying, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s what we see every day. Why are people making such a big fuss out of it?’” says another ex-employee.

“I was horrified [watching the video] but I do know that that is the culture of AirAsia. The fact that it was captured on video and shared just means that people now get a chance to peek into what was pretty much an everyday occurrence in AirAsia,” the person adds.

According to the AirAsia spokesperson, the recent town hall incident was “immediately reviewed” as per the company’s internal code of conduct, peer support, whistleblower, and grievance policies, and “appropriate” action was taken. However, the spokesperson did not specify what consequences the leaders involved in the now infamous town hall have faced.

The “cult” of Tony

To understand the varying reactions to the incident, it’s important to first understand the dynamic between Fernandes, the man who bought AirAsia for 26 cents and turned it into an enterprise, and his twenty thousand or so staff members.

Fernandes built the low-cost carrier from the ground up, competing against industry bigwigs like Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines. Many young Malaysians aspire to work at AirAsia, viewing the company as highly successful and at the forefront of technological pursuits.

Tony Fernandes, AirAsia Group’s chief executive / Photo credit: World Travel & Tourism Council

The airline had a similar reputation in India. It entered the country via a joint venture, and job ads placed in the country’s English dailies in 2013 brought forth thousands of candidates, which surprised even AirAsia’s team. Candidates wanted to sign up with the airline because they believed it offered international exposure.

But Fernandes had also led by example to single-handedly breed a workplace culture where the usual rules don’t apply. The 57-year-old entrepreneur has groomed hundreds – if not thousands – of young employees to take up senior and managerial roles. He has given many the career opportunities of a lifetime. One person Tech in Asia spoke to even described him as a “demigod figure” within the company.

A former staff member says Fernandes was known to promote workers without restraint and into positions he deemed fit, regardless of their prior expertise or experience.

“Tony’s definition of merit was very much based on [his experiences as an] entrepreneur. If you show energy and excitement, you’re very likely to get promoted regardless of whether you are male or female. Even if you may not be exactly suited for a large corporate role – he would do that,” a former senior employee explains. Fernandes was also likely to promote staff members who showed loyalty toward him, the person adds.

If Tony likes someone, they’ll rise regardless of gender or seniority. And no one objects to that.

According to AirAsia, the company has “robust processes” in place for recruitment and internal promotion. Zainin, the AirAsia spokesperson, adds that the top guns of the business are “constantly on the lookout” to identify and encourage unique talent and to give them an opportunity to optimize their capabilities to the fullest.

Fernandes “never shied away from encouraging females, because they have talent and he sees that,” says another former employee from the operations division. “Sometimes, he’s even a little blind – if he finds someone very attractive, he might over-promote them, and that’s his weakness.”

“It’s like Tony’s fiefdom,” says a different ex-employee. “Progress in the company isn’t performance-driven. If Tony likes someone, they’ll rise regardless of gender or seniority. And no one objects to that.”

Two sources tell Tech in Asia that if a person could work without really questioning things, they’d be a rockstar in the AirAsia system. “Some people could get away with murder, some couldn’t even get away by giving a bouquet,” says one of the sources. This favoritism often boiled down to how much face time one got with Fernandes, the source adds.

To ambitious employees who seek to climb the corporate ladder quickly, working at AirAsia could be a dream. Cabin crew and baggage handlers alike have broken the glass ceiling to become pilots. Several employees recount such rags-to-riches stories of how personnel at airport check-in desks have gone on to take up roles in everything from the product division to the finance department.

“Tony is mercurial and very charismatic. He’s someone who is very, very likeable, and he has a tremendous impact on people and a tremendous sense of self-belief,” says a former employee who had worked closely with Fernandes. “I tell people that once you get into the orbit of ‘Planet Tony,’ you lose sense of reality a little.”

Even comments that would normally raise red flags were brushed aside in light of Fernandes’ general interactions with employees. “He’d reach out to grassroots-level employees directly and motivate them. Imagine someone toiling in the hot sun, and the group CEO coming and putting his arm around them and talking with them,” says a former employee who saw this kind of behavior happen often.

“The ground staff, the ticketing staff, they generally don’t have access to leadership in most places. But it wasn’t like that with Tony. That’s pretty unique about AirAsia’s culture,” says the source.

Fernandes’ optimism is unbridled and often infectious. “Tony never stops trying to sustain our morale with his jokes and banter,” says an employee from the firm’s super-app division, adding that the CEO’s lively manner instills belief in the company’s ambition of transforming into Southeast Asia’s next all-encompassing super app. “With him, sometimes his language is colorful, but it’s never personal.”

Sharing an experience many employees would likely relate to, the source adds: “I’ve been nurtured, I’ve also been constantly challenged to grow in these new areas and improve, which I’ve found invaluable. I was also given the opportunity to lead and manage projects I feel I would never have gotten at other companies… People who are clear of where they want to be will have opportunities given to them.”

The sources whom Tech in Asia spoke with were also unanimous in their support of Fernandes’ progressive thinking when it comes to giving employees a chance based on merit (albeit his own definition of it). In the spheres of hiring and career advancement, he is also supposedly “blind to race” in a country where opportunities are oftentimes drawn along ethnic lines.

While Fernandes’ free-spirited hiring and promotion policies sometimes come at the expense of quality and professionalism, as a former employee attests, it’s also won the group CEO the fierce and unwavering loyalty of many of the firm’s employees, whom the business affectionately calls its “All Stars.”

“What he did was, he started something, he was the underdog, and he managed to make a success out of it, and he carried a lot of people along with him with that success,” another erstwhile employee recalls. “So there’s a lot of personal loyalty to him, especially from the people who are in jobs [that] they could never have imagined to be in if they did not join AirAsia.”

The “flower pots”

But a dichotomy exists outside Fernandes’ cult of personality.

On paper, AirAsia may be one of the most progressive companies in Malaysia on the female empowerment front: It became the first ASEAN airline to hire a female commercial pilot in 2009 and has several female CEOs in its leadership team. But in many instances, female staff are judged critically on their looks, often in jest.

AirAsia crew members / Photo credit: 123rf

Making jokes about women’s bodies was common, says one source. “It always happened in front of the woman, never behind her back. If you have a phenomenal sense of humor and you could give it back as good as you got it, fine. But that wasn’t always the case and it’d quickly turn into a cringefest.”

Another former employee recounts how meetings were usually filled with sexual innuendo. Fernandes would comment on “whether someone had good sex in a week or if someone in the office would like to have sex with someone else.” These were meetings where both male and female employees were present, the person adds.

“He used it as a tool to add humor, to make a stressful environment less stressful, without realizing that it made people feel uncomfortable and was disrespectful,” the source adds.

Very often comments that were casually thrown around were sexist, misogynistic, or even misandrist, says one source. “We didn’t take offense to it probably because we got accustomed to seeing the intent behind those comments. It was expected that none of these comments were to be taken seriously.”

At times like this, employees ran the risk of not fitting into the culture that the management created if they “didn’t play along.” Looking back now, this source says it’s “beyond comprehension” how people put up with some of the inappropriate things that were said during meetings.

Fernandes’ relationship with the cabin crew department was also “one of fascination,” says an ex-AirAsia employee familiar with that section’s inner workings.

The source says Fernandes took a keen interest in everything from the standards of recruitment in the cabin crew to their uniforms, but was less interested in the business’ bigger cost areas, like engineering. “There was little fascination in what engineering was doing with maintenance, or cost of supply, or outsourcing,” the source adds.

If we had a crew who was not aesthetically pleasing, Tony would get rid of them or get them to put on more makeup.

Fernandes, who himself is the airlines’ most iconic brand ambassador, is selective in how he devotes his time.

“Tony had an attention span of a gnat – you’d have his attention, sometimes, for as little as five minutes. However, the cabin crew department got a lot more attention,” the ex-staff member notes.

Fernandes has always been actively involved in the pursuit of having “a good-looking crew,” the source says. “If we had a crew who was not aesthetically pleasing, Tony would tell the cabin crew management to get rid of them or get them to put on more makeup… if the crew got too heavy, they were taken off the line,” the source adds.

That said, AirAsia is not the only airline in the industry that imposes strict standards around grooming and appearances on its customer-facing service crew.

The length of the cabin crew skirts has been the subject of controversy among dominant ethnic Malays in the firm’s home country.

The miniskirts of the AirAsia cabin crew were required to be “at least three or four inches above the knee,” with the intent of “teasing out more interest” from the consumer. “But it went too far in my view,” says the source.

The former employee says the length of the skirts hampered the crew’s ability to get things done efficiently in the aircraft. “Girls are bending down to operate drawers… the crew were forever pulling their skirts down to maintain a level of decency.”

An AirAsia cabin crew / Photo credit: 123rf

Among the cabin crew, a select, more exclusive group of girls was handpicked to act as “show girls” – about a dozen for every event – at the company’s press launches and sporting fixtures such as Formula One, where Fernandes and AirAsia’s team were in attendance. These girls were known among the management’s inner circle as “flower pots.”

A former staff member says these girls were “rolled out like Formula One girls” and were often personally selected by Fernandes for trips to London or Paris. “You can imagine it was quite exotic and exciting for these young girls.”

“As far as I remember, [the] girls relished the opportunity to be part of that group. They jumped at it because it meant something less mundane than flying [from] Kuala Lumpur to Singapore four times a day. Instead, they were flying all-expenses-paid to Dubai or to Tokyo or to London. I’m not sure some of them knew what was expected of them,” the person adds.

AirAsia did not confirm if the assertions of these sources were true. It also did not respond to Tech in Asia’s queries on the selection process of the female employees involved or the responsibilities that these employees undertook in their roles as “flower pots.”

In response to Tech in Asia’s questions around the treatment of female employees in the company or on any allegations of favoritism, the AirAsia group spokesperson said the airline has a “policy of not commenting on rumors or speculation.”

Fear of reprisal

There’s a lingering sense of anger among many AirAsia employees surrounding the town hall meeting, despite Fernandes’ public apology. One reason for this is the lack of accountability around the executives in question.

“That lack of transparency on the corrective action was probably what triggered the barrage of anger – and rightly so,” a senior manager says.

It’s mostly the people at the top who behave in a way that the rules don’t apply.

In an anonymous letter that was posted on AirAsia’s virtual workspace and which Tech in Asia has seen, one employee wrote: “I struggle to understand what sort of a culture we are perpetuating in allowing this to happen, then swept under the carpet, and that none of our management acknowledged this as a problem […] Did we ask the victim how she is feeling? Did we inform and take action against the bully for that savage behavior?”

In reply to the anonymous post, the group chief executive said that he “spoke to both staff straight away” and that he had “come to an agreement on the future” with Bijleveld.

AirAsia says it has a team of over 200 trained professionals to look into the needs of employees. Cases that can’t be addressed internally are escalated to the company’s panel of qualified psychologists. However, the spokesperson did not go into what steps were taken in the aftermath of the town hall incident to ensure the wellbeing of the employee who faced the demeaning behavior.

Another probable source of the anger toward the viral video is the favoritism and perceived immunity that Fernandes’ inner circle enjoys. “It’s mostly the people at the top and the people who’ve been there with Tony from the very beginning… [who] behave in a way that the rules don’t apply,” a former AirAsia employee observed.

“Tassapon is probably the number two most powerful person in AirAsia, and even Tony does not cross him and call him out in public. He would have called out other people in public but he did not do it with Tassapon,” the source adds.

Fernandes has been responsible for much of the company’s success on the world stage and its re-invention as a tech company going forward. But he’s also left an indelible impression on AirAsia’s internal culture and norms.

See also: Tony Fernandes responds to critics of his AirAsia super-app gamble

“Tony is the founder, the significant owner, the leader, and he’s also the brand. There’s no line between where Tony ends and AirAsia begins,” a former employee points out. “Without Tony, people at AirAsia won’t know what to do,” adds another.

“The number one actor in that performance was Tony himself,” yet another former employee says of the town hall incident. “Of course it would rub off on the rest of the management team – everybody would feel, within the organization, that they could get away with speaking to their subordinates in such a way.”

While an “open and casual” culture keeps leaders up to date with what is happening at the ground level – away from their “ivory towers,” as a source puts it – this style of leadership also has its downsides. “After a point of time, you start becoming very comfortable with people, hierarchy gets broken. You start taking liberties, but the other person has to be comfortable with you doing that,” says a former employee.

The fact that the letter criticizing the company’s work culture was posted anonymously more than a week after the incident in question also illustrates the fear of potential reprisal within the organization, despite what several employees call a “very open” communication environment.

Meetings would sometimes turn into “shoutfests,” recalls a former staffer. “If you questioned something, and Tony was in a bad mood, you’d get shouted down. You could also get threatened with losing your job,” says the source, adding that it was all a game of probability. On the other hand, the ex-employee says that when the group CEO was in a good mood, interactions with him were akin to “pleasant dreams.”

“We have an open-door policy, and we try to keep the organizational structure as flat as possible,” says one employee. “Anyone can talk to Tony or a CEO. They’re always reachable and contactable via an internal chat platform.” Former employees agree that the organization’s “flatness”was what they liked best about the company.

However, one past employee claims that looks may have been deceiving. “Yes, anybody, anywhere could walk up to Tony and say they have this issue. He was a welcoming boss on the face of it – what he does with the feedback is a different story,” says the former AirAsia personnel.

“Everyone says feedback is welcome, but it really isn’t. But that’s not just with AirAsia, it also happens elsewhere,” says another ex-staff member.

AirAsia doesn’t have a whistleblower policy to the knowledge of several former employees, but the airline says it does have one. “All anonymous complaints are handled by our internal audit team,” says Zainin. She adds that people-related complaints are forwarded by this team to one that handles employee relations either for investigation or further action.

Photo credit: 123rf

Last year, when the group still held a significant part of AirAsia India (things have changed since December 2020), the no-frills airline made headlines after Gaurav Taneja, a pilot and popular vlogger in India, publicly alleged that the airline was not following coronavirus safety protocols and recommended a dangerous landing procedure to save fuel. India’s aviation regulator then suspended two senior executives from AirAsia India.

Taneja’s actions cost him: The whistleblower was first suspended by AirAsia and later sacked. While AirAsia India did not put out any response when contacted by Indian media outlets at the time, the airline filed a lawsuit against Taneja that was subsequently quashed in court.

“Safety has always been our top priority,” says Zainin, adding that the airline has received the highest rating for Covid-19 health and safety measures in 2020, citing several international standards.

“Not the worst I’ve seen”

“To put things into perspective, most of the time, it’s not a big deal [and] people are used to it. It’s [also] not that toxic [an environment] compared to some other places I’ve seen,” one former employee says, referring to how AirAsia stacks up against other companies in Malaysia.

The source says that there is “politeness and a veneer of civility” in these other companies, but beneath the surface, some of the bullying that goes on is “way worse than in AirAsia.” Other sources agree.

Being thick-skinned is a valuable asset for those who want a career at AirAsia, says one source. But looking past Fernandes’ questionable practices, many past and present employees of the firm describe their experience working at AirAsia as being largely positive.

“AirAsia feels like a typical multinational corporation. I have met mostly decent humans. Conflict is unavoidable because of the sheer number of people and amount of work – but the people I work with are tactful enough not to come across as hostile,” says an AirAsia staff member who has had frequent interactions with heads of several divisions. “They are just your typical heads of departments. Tactful enough even if things don’t go their way.”

A majority of the sources who spoke out were also quick to point out the invaluable professional opportunities afforded to them while at the company.

“What Tony has created is not in question here […] The professional learnings and development that I was able to encounter whilst I was at AirAsia – for all of its fallibilities and pitfalls of working for an eccentric entrepreneur – there were a lot of positives that came from it,” said one ex-employee.

“To be fair, [Fernandes] is about female empowerment and giving females a chance – he got a former beauty pageant contestant to become a pilot – he’s done good things too. But that doesn’t excuse his negative behavior,” another source said.

“The AirAsia culture…it’s so much richer than [what we witnessed]… I agree that what happened during the town hall crossed the line, but I’m really inclined to give the culture another chance,” one employee says.