The United Airlines corporate culture exposed

When a Kentucky physician was dragged off a United Airlines plane it naturally created headlines around the world as it was an incomprehensible act, which didn’t make sense to anybody. If it had been a violent passenger or a criminal on the run it would have made some kind of sense. But it wasn’t. It was an ordinary passenger, who had paid for his ticket and sat in his assigned seat harming no-one.

He was removed because the plane was overbooked and United Airlines evaluated that he was less important that the passengers who couldn’t come onboard. But the thing is, the people waiting to get on board the plane were not passengers, but United Airlines employees.

This horrific situation was well documented and shared on social media and created headlines around around the world. Within a couple of days the market value of United Airlines dropped 800 million USD. The worst possible situation for any company in the service sector. Almost! It would have been the worst possible situation if it wasn’t for the United Airlines corporate culture that miraculously managed to make the situation even worse.

Here is the letter United Airlines CEO sent to the employees after the incident;

Dear Team, Like you, I was upset to see and hear about what happened last night aboard United Express Flight 3411 headed from Chicago to Louisville. While the facts and circumstances are still evolving, especially with respect to why this customer defied Chicago Aviation Security Officers the way he did, to give you a clearer picture of what transpired, I’ve included below a recap from the preliminary reports filed by our employees. As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right. I do, however, believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience, and we are taking a close look at the circumstances surrounding this incident. Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are, and we must always remember this no matter how challenging the situation. Oscar

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz defends the action stating that  “Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this“.

So what does this tell us about the United Airlines corporate culture?

It tells us a lot of things that I will explain below

Rules or people first

We need to have rules in order to be able function together. When we drive we have rules about in which side of the road to drive and so on. We have a legal system that punishes us for doing harmful things to other people or the society. If you kill another person you go to jail for a long time because we don’t tolerate that kind of behaviour. But what if you kill a close relative who is paralysed and in great pain with no chance for recovery? Should you have the same punishment as if you killed another person with cold blood? Probably not. That is why we have exceptions and that is why we in well-developed societies are judging on a scale and not binary guilty or not guilty.

Companies have rules and procedures too but they also have values. All companies say they have values, but frankly; most of these values written on corporate websites and in powerpoint presentations are rubbish! If you have a value, you don’t have a need to write it down. In Gugin we have helped many companies develop corporate cultures that fits what the company wants to achieve. One of the first things we do is to get rid of all the “fake news” these value statements on powerpoint presentations and corporate websites are. The real values are those, which sum up your behaviour and in the case of United Airlines it is fear. Fear is the most important motivation factor we have. We explain more in this acticle in case you are interested.

United Airlines obviously have a preference for rules and procedures, since Mr. Munoz defended the incident by saying the rules and procedures were followed. Then everything is great if that is the mindset you have.

But the world isn’t obeying Oscar Munoz’ or anyone else’s rules. It is far more complex and far too diversified. On board a plane there hundreds of different people with different cultural backgrounds, different fears, different objectives, different relationships with authorities etc. The only thing they have in common is that they want to go from A to B. To achieve that everybody accepts that there some rules that have to be followed and so did the physician from Kentucky.

Here is what United Airlines write on their own website about customer service:

Our United Customer Commitment We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day. Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers. Our United Customer Commitment explains our specific service commitments so that we can continue a high level of performance and improve wherever possible. The commitment explains our policies in a clear, consistent and understandable fashion. We have detailed training programs and system enhancements to support our employees in meeting these commitments, and we measure how well we meet them

When they write: “makes us a leader in the airline industry” it generally means squeezing as much money out of you as possible to satisfy the investors.

Management by fear

The crew followed the rules, but I am absolutely sure they were uncomfortable with it because they could see that in this situation it was totally wrong. So why didn’t they say. “we have some rules but we need to solve this in another way”? Because of fear, I am sure. Fear of being punished if they break the the rules, fear of being punished if they have to leave United Airlines employees on the ground. The crew’s fear is so intense that they are willing to risk everything to follow the rules.

If customer service was a key priority and if it was a value in the company, the situation could have been resolved in the same way as similar situations are resolved many times every single day at all airlines around the world. One of the most common ways to solve this is to make an announcement to the passengers on board the plane, that the plane is overbooked. The ask if someone are willing to wait for the next flight or be re-routed in return for a compensation. If not enough people volunteer increase the compensation until the situation is resolved. It happens this way many times a day. Except at United Airlines of course because customer satisfaction is not a value – only profitability is.

I feel so sorry for the employees

As a passenger you can choose to fly with someone else if you don’t like an airline. As a flight attendant it is a bit more complicated. It is a job that pays your bills. You just don’t switch to another airline if you don’t like the culture in the airline you are working with. Hub location, unemployment rate, friendship with current colleagues etc. are determining factors in the decision process for quitting a job.

Don’t blame the United Airlines employees

These people who caused this incident would have behaved totally different if the corporate culture of United Airlines had been different. I am sure they are excellent in doing their job, but when they end up in a dilemma they choose to follow the rules instead of preserving customer satisfaction. They do that because of fear – a fear that is very painful to carry and live with. I know that because we have worked with so many companies in a number of different industries where similar problems exist.

So instead of trying to be funny or sarcastic with the united airlines employees – Give them a hug. They need it


What shall United Airlines do now?

They can continue to focus on satisfying the shareholders only and hope that this incident will be forgotten or they can start a transformation process towards building relationships with the customers so that they remain loyal to you and will forgive you when you make mistakes. But to be honest I think United Airlines will stick with the first option.

What to know what YOUR real corporate culture is like? Read here

AND – Please share if you like





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