Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, has identified “shame” and being disturbed as his reaction to the wrenching cellphone video of Dr. David Dao being manhandled (suffering a skull fracture, lost teeth, and a broken nose), while being forced off one of the airline’s flights to make room for United employees. The incident has gotten worldwide attention.
Many can recall the experience songwriter Dave Carroll had with his “United Breaks Guitars” encounter, and his YouTube video seen by close to 20 million people. But, this is worse because it involves more than just an inanimate object. Dr. Dao is a live human being, with emotions and rights. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has weighed in (pardon the pun) on Dr. Dao’s behalf, saying “Everybody who flies commercial knows United is awful. I don’t think they’ve set a culture there.”
The airline has offered refunds to all of the United Express Flight 3411 passengers as the outrage over Dr. Dao’s removal has continued. United has also committed to review policies and employee training to avoid future such scenes of abuse. Here is a cold reality: It’s not nearly enough.
Munoz has apologized to Dr. Dao, but it’s not enough, in part because the apology doesn’t extend to either other passengers on the flight or United employees. The airline has said “This horrible situation has provided a harsh learning experience from which we will take immediate, concrete action. We have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so that this never happens again.” Blah, blah, blah….. Saying you’re committed is just words, not initiatives and tangible action. It’s an apology of a sort, but it’s not nearly enough.
In the recent past, companies like BP, Wells Fargo, Comcast, and Toyota have faced strong criticism for undermining the trust, reputation, and image among stakeholders. Customer and employee experience research tells us that only sincere, strategic and disciplined approaches, changing the DNA and stakeholder experience processes, are sufficient to right the perception ship of an impaired organization.
So, how will United strategically demonstrate – to the public, to passengers, and to their employees – their rectitude (moral correction of behavior or thinking) and resolve to become a more socially responsible and stakeholder-centric enterprise? Will the company, for example:
1. Actively work to modify the enterprise culture and DNA so that it is proactively stakeholder-centric, emphasizing both customer experience and employee experience? The model for this is Southwest and Virgin, which United would do well to emulate
2a. Completely overhaul and reframe their onboarding processes so that ticketed passengers always receive seating priority, irrespective of flight crew movement needs (and supposed impact on profitability)?
2b. And, as an extension to 2a, will they give airport staff more latitude (financial and otherwise) for handling overbooked situations?
3. Train airport counter, gate, and flight employees – and everyone else in the company not directly connected to customers – to recognize that serving passengers in a positive, effective way is both a privilege and a responsibility?
4. Publicly apologize, through PSA’s (public service announcements), going on record that they are changing policies and practices, not only with respect to processes, but to core culture and values? Moreover, periodically reporting to employees, passengers, and the general public on progress in these areas will be essential.
Much of what United created for itself has to do with productivity-obsessive culture, and regressive, insensitive policies executed by uncommitted employees. And, at the employee level, as an affirmation of stakeholder-centricity, this is about employee ambassadorship: commitment to the customers, to the company, to the value proposition and to fellow employees.
A 2015 Advertising Age blog by a leading marketing research consulting organization encapsulated employee ambassadorship very well: Ambassadorship should be an enterprise-wide mantra for every organization: “All employees need to embody the intended customer experience . A narrative must be cascaded down to every single individual in the organization. Your employees must clearly understand their role in delivering the promise the narrative makes to the end customer. This requires multiple conversations and socialization across all business divisions and at every level, not just for customer support roles”
If United Airlines is truly sorry for what was so publicly done to Dr. Dao, and if they truly intend to reshape both the culture and experience processes so that they are in sync and fully stakeholder-centric, the list identified above is a good starting point.