United Airlines, Lesson I: Balancing Appreciation Of Employees With Responsibility to Customers

How do (should) you balance the respect and responsibility for your staff with your respect and responsibility to your customers?

It should definitely go more smoothly than this.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was responding to an incident in which a customer of his airline was brutally dragged off of a flight after the airline had randomly selected the passenger to deplane to make room for United employees who needed the seats. As one of a few of the selected customers, the man refused and an altercation ensued with various videos from different passengers perspectives capturing separate parts of the disruption and subsequently making the viral rounds on social media.

It’s always important to praise employees during the commission of their duties especially in difficult and controversial circumstances, so there can be admiration for the way Munoz stands behind his employees but, right off the bat, he should have balanced it with just as much — if not, more — high regard for the customers who were witness to such a scene and who need more reassurance by the company than the employees in such a matter. The message of appreciation of the employees cannot be conveyed at the expense of both safety and disappointment of current and future United customers, with one particular bloodied customer coming to mind immediately.

It’s one thing if a company has an non-physical altercation with a customer that goes unnoticed, unrecorded, un-tweeted, and unshared.

It’s another thing if there’s an everyday incident with a disappointed customer that gets caught on video.

It’s a completely different beast when video surfaces of a customer being physically restrained, bloodied, and dragged off a plane to the horror of other customers who are witnessing the incident.

A CEO needs to tailor their response to, and acknowledgement of, an incident to the magnitude of that incident in order for the message to be effective and genuine.

The moment the video started making the rounds, the perception of the company and the environment it provides for customers began to take a turn for the worse, to the point where viral campaigns were launched to #boycottunited while others prompted people to cut up their United Airlines-related credit and frequent flyer cards.

As with so many cases of brutality caught on tape, there needs to be restraint in how the action is defended. This is due to both safety being the highest responsibility of the institution – in this case, the airline — and, further on, down the list, how the reputation of an organization’s customer service and operational practices suffer.

There’s a way to say apologetically, “These are the rules,” “A passenger is selected at random and is then asked to disembark the plane,” and “This is common policy that usually occurs frequently and without incident,” “This is not what we wanted,” and “We will be looking into this.” But doubling down in a dismissive manner instead, from the get-go, on a horrible experience of a customer, which was chronicled in several videos which have gone viral, been vilified, and condemned by the masses on a global scale, is not the way to go.

The main point in this post is not to debate the incident itself. One could say that both parties — the security guards and the passenger — were at fault at one point or the other, although security (obviously) took it way too far in the end.

It is the tone of the CEO and his inability to communicate swiftly and effectively that makes an already indefensible and shocking incident even more questionable and problematic.

Talk about irony.

This is one of two lessons stemming from the United incident.

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