The last thing any company wants, or can afford, is a PR nightmare. Just ask United Airlines.
You’ve no doubt seen video of the United passenger being dragged up the aisle by police after he was randomly selected to give up his seat to a United crew member.
It was disturbing, to say the least, and United’s actions in the days that followed only made matters worse.
But I think there are some HR learnings from all this.
In a crisis, you have one first chance to send the right message.
As videos of this horrible incident racked up millions of views online, United’s initial reaction was to apologize for having to “re-accommodate” passengers and to remind everyone that a ticket is a contract. United CEO Oscar Munoz criticized the distraught passenger for being “disruptive and belligerent.”
United’s market value plummeted by $1 billion—yes, one billion—after this incident. Who knows what it will cost to rebuild the company’s reputation.
In transportation, it can take just one crisis to put your business in a similar situation.
Consider every situation your company might face, from a catastrophic accident to an offensive Tweet. What is your plan of action? Who will coordinate your response when reporters call or a video of your truck goes viral? What is your spokesperson empowered to say? What are employees authorized to do? More importantly, what is your message to your customers, employees, and the public?
You need a game plan for every possible situation. Your team needs to understand and practice their roles. Do they have the required training and are they empowered to act in the best interests of the company? The stakes are simply too high not to be prepared.
At United, Munoz defended his employees—who exercised poor judgment—and was critical of the customer who was hauled off the plane.
All I can say is, what?
We’ve all been on oversold flights. Is this what we can expect if we don’t volunteer to give up our seat?
The clear message to me is that United has no core values. Its policies and message put the company above its customers. In following the “rules,” employees actually allow this situation to escalate to the point of physical abuse and mental trauma.
In his latest apology, Munoz promised the company will “do better.” To make good on that promise, United has to not only gain the trust of customers, it must give leadership, direction, and vision to its employees. They need to know how to respond to customers properly, and to be empowered to bend the rules when it would contribute to the company’s greater good. Right now there is clearly no “greater good” here.
There are people around the world who will never again fly with United Airlines. And I have to ask, who in the world would want to work for them?
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