United Airlines Incident: What about the employee experience?

United scandal

I realize everyone and their mother and their mother’s dog walker has weighed in on the United incident by now, but people have been prodding me for my formal response.  And so I am parsing it out for you in two parts.

This will be Part 1. It’s a blog post explaining one angle I think is under-discussed, which is the impact on employees of a brand when an incident like this occurs.

On Tuesday, I’ll be doing a “postmortem” podcast on how United has fared in its recovery so far withe the public, employees, shareholders and customers.  It’s a break from form of my normal podcast, where I have a guest discussing their customer experience leadership role. This upcoming podcast I’ve invited Diane Magers, who has worked with AT&T and other large companies to discuss and debate this with me. Look for the United PostMortem podcast on Tuesday, April 25th on this site.

The United incident and stakeholders

For many reasons — among them how they are presented in social media — we think about issues like the United incident primarily with respect to the impact to customers of the brand. This situation is no different.  And I would venture to say it has elevated the social media frenzy beyond many public responses to other incidents.  Video in this case has incited the large, loud and ongoing emotional reaction and public outcry.  And with that, it has unleashed every type of creative interpretation and rendition describing, reacting or pivoting from the situation.  This one below, for example, has gotten a great deal of attention.

United Scandal Southwest ad

Most social media outcry and discussions about this situation focus on customers.  But here is what seems to be missing from the conversation in the aftermath of the United incident is this:

How are employees of the brand impacted?

We’ve all seen United’s responses publicly to the incident and professed actions for improvement.  It is compelling to note that in its aftermath United’s net profit was down 69% last week.   It is still too soon to tell of course what the long term implication of this incident will be to United’s financial condition.

Beyond addressing the financial impact of such an incident, I am also very interested in the discussing the employee impact.  I am most interested to know how United is helping employees in the wake of this situation.   How are they are reaching employees to answer questions, resolve concerns and work to restore any potentially tarnished pride in the company that they work for.

I am also very interested in, and have been waiting to see how United will also reach out to their customers to address and begin to repair their potential concerns as a customer of the airline.  Watching this incident over and over and over again struck a personal chord in passengers whether they are a United customer or not.  And there is an opportunity here for contrition and fence-mending that I have not yet seen.   As people we yearn for it.  And we applaud leaders and companies who put themselves out there with customers to begin to repair that impacted emotional connection.

For example, Jeff Bezos of Amazon is fearless in communicating directly to customers when they have course-corrected.  He is lauded for it and it strengthens the brand.  People can and will forgive but they yearn for leaders to extend grace and accepting accountability directly with their customers.

Impact on employee moral, pride & dignity

In these situations, employees get a great indication about the true values and leadership disposition than in almost any other situation where they might observe their leaders.  How a company reacts in these situations really is a humanity litmus test.  How a company repairs, removes the pain and puts the company and its people back together again show the true colors of the and organization.  We have hope that when our companies are tested that we will be inspired by the response.  That we will want to emulate it.

So how do employees feel when rules are enforced or actions required that might not jive with their own behavior?  How are they impacted?  And, what happens to employees when company responses  may not be congruent with their own personal values and beliefs?

And most importantly, what is the impact on employee pride and dignity as they face the public in the wake of an incident such as this?

We see these big stories play out — this, Wells Fargo, where company behavior and/or responses to behavior shock and illicit the type of wide spread response we’ve seen.  But these situations are often limited to a small number of people who now become the standard bearer for what all of the brand stands for.   And in many cases like this, those actions aren’t in accordance with the broader mission or the views of the majority of employees. But they all still need to put on the uniform and walk through O’Hare the next day, right?

The frontline we interact with in the airports and on the phone didn’t make the rules. They wear the uniform of the brand. And they are trying to heal from this, the same as all of us.

So what will you do when you’re in O’Hare next week?

Here’s an idea: thank them for their service. Give them a smile.  Those employees may be feeling the same pain as you are.

How we respond to other humans in these situations goes a long way.

Remember: my United incident podcast will arrive on Tuesday.

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