United Airlines Does Not Have a PR Problem

April 13, 2017

By Mark Behan
President, Behan Communications Inc.

United Airlines does not have a PR problem. It’s deeper than that.

It has a cultural problem – and the fix will come not with CEO apologies, solemn promises, or refunds. Sweeping internal transformation is probably what’s required.  It’s a long haul, and United needs to move fast before savvy customers and disruptor competitors “re-accommodate” the airline.

Judging only by what I read, I sense that United’s culture puts a premium on scrupulous compliance with rules and policies – arguably the right approach for an airline. But perhaps an internal culture of compliance-without-question got United in trouble when its employees, following policy and abetted by federal regulation, asked law enforcement authorities to remove ticketed, boarded passengers from a plane on which they had paid to fly – and did so in service of United’s own interests. United needed the seats to transport four employees to an airport to staff subsequent flights. Now United is left with the indelible image of a customer being dragged off a plane. There but for the grace of God fly I. 

United might benefit from the good experience of many modern manufacturing facilities, where employee safety is always a pre-eminent concern. The facilities are equipped with emergency stop buttons. Any employee who senses danger can hit the button and stop the process until safety issues are satisfactorily addressed.

United needs a cultural stop button – a time-out to give every employee the training, confidence and a broad new grant of authority to use common sense. Tear down the old policies and blow up the procedure. Craft a new policy that empowers employees to de-fuse and de-escalate crises and seek customer solutions they can proudly support. Drive the learning to every corner of the company. Find employees doing the right thing and reward them. Incent the right behaviors. Liberate employees to do the right thing and make them proud to work for United again. Measure the progress, report it from coast to coast, and use this crisis to reshape the company.

United is probably not alone. The expensive lesson they’ve learned should not be lost on the rest of the airline industry nor on businesses in every other sector. The best advice I ever received as an entrepreneur was this: Every employee has the capacity to make a mistake. Make sure every employee has the authority to fix it in a way that benefits the customer.

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