Four Things United Got Wrong This Week and One It Got Right

Posted 04.14.2017
In an amazing feat of topping itself, United Airlines generated even more public outrage this week than it did a few weeks ago when it denied boarding to a couple of young girls in yoga pants. This week, of course, United’s problems were encapsulated in the 50 second video of uniformed security personnel dragging a bloodied passenger up the aisle and out the door when he refused to relinquish his seat after being bumped off the flight. Since we live in 2017, the video was immediately posted online and quickly went viral around the world.

Then the trouble for United really began. The airline’s CEO Oscar Munoz issued a corporate-speak statement about his regret about having to “re-accommodate” some passengers on the flight. Then an internal memo he wrote to United’s 86,000 employees in which he sided with the flight crew and gate agents was released. That didn’t go over well and the outrage increased. It was at that point that Munoz’ statements evolved into a full mea culpa expressing “shame” over the mistreatment of the passenger. In the meantime, the airline’s market value dropped by almost a billion dollars and a Boycott United movement emerged.

I’ve flown more than 100,000 miles on United for four years in a row. I’m getting on one of their planes tomorrow morning for a business trip. I’ve had some bad experiences with United over the years (but have never been dragged off one of their planes) and some good ones. As I wrote a few years ago, I’ve even had really bad and really great experiences with United on the same trip. You might say I have a hate/love relationship with United. In the spirit of love, though, as a 1K flyer with United, I’d like to offer some unsolicited advice and perhaps an unexpected word of praise to CEO Munoz. I’m framing them up as five things that matter. Perhaps there are some takeaways here for leaders of any organization.

Messaging Matters – There’s a legal school of thought that corporations are people, but most of us real human beings understand that they’re really not. Corporate messaging should speak to real human feelings and norms. Everybody knows that when you’re drug out of a plane by the cops, you haven’t really been “re-accommodated.” CEO’s need communications professionals and advisors around them who put statements like that through the human filter before they’re released. Without that reality check, you’re only going to make things worse with your corporate-speak.

Vendors Matter – The worst moments of the episode this week came after Chicago Aviation Department officers boarded the plane. They’re the ones who wrestled the passenger out of his seat, bloodied his nose and dragged him up the aisle by his armpits.  But, it happened on a United plane so United gets the blame. This demonstrates that as a leader, you have to make sure your non-company partners share your values. United is the biggest carrier out of Chicago. They clearly could have influence over the procedures of the Aviation Department.

Systems Matter – Both the yoga pants and the passenger bumping episodes were the results of operating processes and systems that, when followed to their extremes, led people to make poor decisions. When setting up a system, you have to consider what outcomes you’re trying to create and what could go wrong on the way to achieving those outcomes. When do you make exceptions to what the process or system dictates? When does or when should human judgment override what the system dictates?

Training Matters – And, of course, if you’re going to encourage your people to make exceptions like allowing 12-year-old girls on the plane even though they don’t meet a dress code designed for adults or considering alternatives to having a disruptive passenger physically removed from the plane by police, you have to give them the training they need to make good calls. That’s also one of the first steps in creating a culture that treats everyone – customers and employees alike – as people worthy of respect and dignity simply because they’re human beings.

Employees Matter – This is the one thing that Munoz and United mainly got right. When the shit hit the fan, he didn’t throw his employees under the bus. While it was overly defensive in tone (see “messaging matters” above), Munoz made the right move in sending out his email about the incident to all of United’s employees. What he was saying, in so many words, is “I have your back.” Isn’t that want all of us want from our boss when things go wrong? We want to know that they’re with us. There’s a lot of work to be done at United to get past this episode and truly and meaningfully turn things around. Munoz is going to have to have his employees with him if he’s going to pull that off. Not throwing them under the bus this week was a good start.

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