Was there neglect of HR by United Airlines?

There is a video, viral on social media, of a bloodied passenger being manhandled by cabin
staff when he refused to relinquish his seat. This has done significant damage to the United Airlines
business and created a fall in their share price. But a major public relations disaster with such
financial consequences cannot mean they merely missed HR issues, surely? Yes, it can.

It is fair to assume that at some point in the United Airlines hierarchy someone, probably a manager
remote from the scene, said words to the effect: “I want a further passenger off that plane, and no
excuses“. Even if nothing explicit was said, it is a reasonable assumption that the cabin crew knew
what was expected.

It is an HR matter because something inherent in the culture of United Airlines created that
situation. Faced with a lack of compromise from those managing them, the cabin crew felt that they
could not compromise with passengers who did not want to leave the flight. The manner in which
employees are treated (or see themselves as being treated) acts as a role model for how they treat
customers. There are a few HR aspects to reflect on here.

Culture

Consider carefully what your vision for your business really is. Many entrepreneurs’ have a clear
vision of what they want to achieve, but they do not always communicate that to employees. If you
don’t have a clear vision, Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why” may be very helpful to you. If you do have a clear vision but don’t communicate it, read the communication section below.

Many organisations set out a mission and values to guide their people. Sometimes these are
determined by a senior management team who meet on a weekend break at some posh country
location. Sometimes a chief executive will set up focus groups within the organisation to involve
those who actually need to deliver the mission and values. Both these may be over the top for a
small business, but they illustrate some options.

Communication

From Henry II (“will anyone rid me of this troublesome priest”) to (perhaps) a manager on United
Airlines, the words of people in senior positions may be taken too literally. It is easy to think of
communication in a one way direction, particularly when we think of “bosses and subordinates”. But
good communication is two-way and that involves listening.

It seems simple, but listening is a high skill. It is easy to make assumptions (I have made at least one
about United Airlines already). The good leader listens to his staff, they are the route to people with
whom “the boss” may not have direct contact. Of all the leadership skills, listening might be the
most significant. Developing listening skills is a lifetime project. But the development can be
accelerated by training.

Training

We develop listening skills in our workshops with role play, feedback and discussion. And there are
other ways in which training helps employees to react appropriately.

Employees frequently have to face situations where those who would guide them are not present.
For example, cabin crew need to be trained in how to restrain a disruptive passenger. Much the
same applies to care staff in handling disturbed residents.

Good training enables individuals to develop skills away from the pressures of a real situation.
Quality role play enables people to develop skills in handling situations that can be anticipated
but not practiced beforehand. We can safely assume that United Airlines pilots are trained in a simulator before being let loose to land a plane.

Policies

Don’t forget your policies. A sound equal opportunities policy, properly communicated (!) may have
saved United Airlines. The passenger selected by the cabin staff appeared to be Chinese. This has
the consequence that racial discrimination may be alleged and also that much of the damaging viral
circulation was in China.

In summary

It is all about people or, to put it explicitly, HR.

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