We all know about the United Airlines dragging incident.
Passenger buys a ticket and boards a plane. The passenger is later told to leave the plane, refuses, and gets dragged off by security. The world can’t stop watching the horrifying video for at least a week.
Oscar Munoz, United’s CEO, has been making the media rounds to tell everyone he’s really sorry and the airline will do better. He’s been interviewed by the Associated Press and appeared on ABC News and NBC News.
On Friday, a statement from United Airlines announced “changes to improve customer experience.” The statement also contained this quote from Munoz about the incident:
our policies got in the way of our values
That quote is a massive problem.
What Munoz doesn’t understand, or won’t acknowledge, is that United’s values created those policies. And until those values change, things won’t fundamentally get better.
Image source: United Airlines
What Are Corporate Values?
Corporate values are an aspect of corporate culture.
They provide guidance on how employees should act in the workplace. We often say “employees” in reference to frontline employees or perhaps line supervisors, but the term really refers to anyone in the company’s employ, including executives.
People sometimes mistake written values for actual values.
A company might have a set of written values as United does (more on that in a moment). Those values have zero meaning unless they are actually guiding employee behavior.
In my research for The Service Culture Handbook, I discovered company after company where the written values weren’t authentic. The real values in these companies weren’t written, but you could see evidence of them in employees’ daily actions.
This includes policy-making.
United’s Corporate Values
In February of this year, United announced its first-ever customer service vision (a.k.a. “shared purpose”) along with four corporate values:
We Fly Right On the ground and in the air, we hold ourselves to the highest standards in safety and reliability. We earn trust by doing things the right way and delivering on our commitments every day.
We Fly Friendly Warm and welcoming is who we are.
We Fly Together As a united United, we respect every voice, communicate openly and honestly, make decisions with facts and empathy, and celebrate our journey together.
We Fly Above & Beyond With an ambition to win, a commitment to excellence, and a passion for staying a step ahead, we are unmatched in our drive to be the best.
Now, compare those written values to the myriad of policies and operational decisions that led to a paid passenger getting dragged of a United plane.
The situation was caused because United needed four seats on a plane to get a flight crew to Louisville. If the crew didn’t get there in time, the flight might be cancelled, which created severe cost pressure for operators.
Gate agents weren’t notified about the crew until after boarding had begun. This is either a failure to anticipate a problem or a failure to communicate it.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that gate agents were empowered to offer a maximum of $800 to solicit volunteers to give up their seat. This was a Sunday evening flight, and the airline was offering to rebook passengers on a Monday flight, so you can see why this wasn’t a compelling offer.
United’s policy allowed gate agents to have passengers removed from a plane to accommodate crew members, so gate agents followed this policy. They called security for assistance when one passenger refused to leave the plane.
All of those policies and operational decisions show that United’s true values are cost-cutting and tight corporate control.
Crew scheduling in particular has dogged United for years. My most-read blog post way back in 2012 tracked a series of texts from my wife, Sally, as she endured United’s comically lame operations while trying to fly home.
Now, it’s fair to assume that United hadn’t fully disseminated and indoctrinated its new corporate values since they were created in February 2017 and this incident happened in April 2017.
But the CEO should be the new values champion. Instead, Munoz reflected United’s old values in his initial letter to employees the day after the incident, where he blamed the passenger and commended employees for doing things right.
How to Avoid United’s Values Problem
Having written values isn’t enough.
Employees need to be aware of the values. They must understand what they mean. And they need to be able to describe how the values guide their actions.
JetBlue was one of the customer-focused companies profiled in The Service Culture Handbook. This airline leads the American Customer Satisfaction Index in customer satisfaction (ahead of Southwest Airlines!) while United is ranked near the bottom.
Unlike United, JetBlue ensures its policies are aligned with corporate values.
The airline has six values committees that review workplace polices and ensure each one is aligned with JetBlue’s corporate culture. Each committee represents different groups of employees (gate agents, flight attendants, etc.) and committee members are elected by their peers.
New hires at JetBlue receive extensive training on the airline’s customer service vision, Inspire Humanity. Supervisors regularly discuss the corporate culture with employees and executives visit each JetBlue location at least once per quarter to share updates and reinforce the culture.