United Airlines and Only Following Orders

Only following policy only hurts your business.

By now, you’ve doubtless seen the sturm und drang surrounding United Airlines’s escalation of an unreasonable passenger’s behavior to forcible police action against the passenger.

If not, here’s one link to give you some background.

United’s CEO Oscar Munoz then, and now famously, backed his employees for following the rules and doing the right thing.   He called the passenger “disruptive” and “belligerent” and emphatically stood behind his employees.

Now, a lot has already been written about how United took the most painful route to resolution with this situation (not this passenger, more on that later).  The company could have simply continued to raise the offer of compensation to passengers who would leave the plane until “somebody” felt it was worth it to leave.  Investor’s Business Daily had a decent article on this.  It’s here.  

But, that article, while precisely right, probably ignores a reality of large company “policy and procedure.”  And, I’m just guessing here.  But, what we have likely seen is the result of a company policy that prevents gate agents from offering more than “X” dollars compensation for re-accommodation.  In other words, the gate agents, in escalating this circumstance to (1) random selection of passengers and (2) calling in the police were merely “following orders” or “complying with policy.”

Having a large number of people in a large organization adhere to policy is good for business as a rule.  But it’s awful for business during a true hard case.  And, it appears that this is a true hard case.

As many of you have probably experienced in sales and retail environments, someone sticking “policy” in your face as a means to resolving customer service rarely makes you a more loyal, understanding customer.

And this is where United’s CEO got this one wrong.  Munoz has been attacked from the perspective of his communications being awful for public relations; but I’ll go so far as to say his words are probably bad for business.

What he said to his employees in an internal email was “I emphatically stand behind all of you.”

That’s an admirable statement from a CEO, and not an easy one to make in a crisis like this. But it is a callous response to the brutality of events precipitated by United’s escalation to the police.

What he should have said was probably something like “I stand behind you, but in a truly hard circumstance like the one we just experienced, you have the discretion to choose a better way.” And, he ought to ensure policy allows for it.

Now, on the passenger:  It’s quite possible that this particular passenger would have stayed on the airplane no matter what.  He appears to be a truly unreasonable fellow. At the end of his ordeal, he wasn’t dealing with flight attendants, but with the police.  When you are non-compliant with a sworn law enforcement officer, you are making your own bed.

But this situation isn’t about that guy.  That guy exists on every flight in America. Forget him. He’s a screaming lunatic who put himself and his travel plans above dozens of other people’s (before he was forcibly removed, then walked back on the plane).  That’s true no matter whether he was “technically” right just as it’s true that Oscar Munoz’s comments were wrong even if “technically” right.

This is about the other dozens of passengers, at least one of whom might have left for a higher price. I’m always surprised when we fail to look at circumstances like this one and forget that there wasn’t just one option available to United…there were dozens of other options, many of whom were probably closer to leaving than the guy who ultimately was dragged off the flight.  People have already forgotten that the unruly passenger wasn’t the only one selected against his will.

There were three others.

The other three left peacfully, probably with some compensation and a hotel room for the night (and no doubt with a bad taste in their mouth about United).  Sure, that may make them “sheep” with no respect for their “rights,” but it left them with choices, too.

While responsibility for the escalation resides with United and “policy,” I think it’s fair to say to United employees that they will encounter another jerk in the future.  Their option is to blacklist that jerk from ever flying United again if he chooses to take this flight at this time against the company’s wishes and policy, and select another passenger.

It’s the jerk’s choice at that point.

So, bad things all around.  The CEO’s “right” but callous focus on company policy is a bad thing for business.  The passenger’s “right” but idiotic stand ultimately got him entangled with the police.

Sometimes, a little discretion is all it takes.  Only following policy only hurts business.

What do you think?

 

 

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