Genius or cowardice? That’s my quandary as United CEO Oscar Munoz continues to defend employees over the dragging incident in April.
If you recall, Dr. David Dao was dragged off a flight from Chicago to Louisville after he refused to give up his seat on an oversold flight. United initially blamed him, backtracking only after vocal outrage by the media and public.
In the aftermath of the incident, United promised travelers a new customer service paradigm including a promise never to repeat what happened to Dr. Dao.
He reportedly stated–
It was about supporting our employees because for me, the objective is I cannot lose these folks. As much as people wanted me to potentially blame other people, I couldn’t do it because once they see someone who they think highly of — in this case, me — if they see them in a tough moment giving up on their principles and starting to blame somebody else, I think you start getting at the root and the heart of someone’s true principles, and I could not let that happen.
I’m not clear what Munoz is saying. I understand that employees look up to him. I also understand that throwing employees under the bus does not win union support. The buck stops with him, after all. But wasn’t there also an element of common sense that was lacking in the Dao incident? Do employees really need training not to board passengers that may have to be bumped? Or to threaten passengers with arrest rather than cajole them with kindness?
Munoz: Principles, not People
I had to support our employees despite the intense, massive, ugly scrutiny that we got because of that. It wasn’t them — it was policies and principles that got in the way.
I get that. I understand that employees were not empowered to offer additional compensation to entice others to voluntarily give up their seat. But I do think Munoz supports his employees best by holding everyone at United, starting with him, to a high level of integrity that treats every passenger with dignity and respect.
Munoz is wrong that employees are blameless. I’ve flown United for far too long. There are so many gems, but also many, many disgruntled employees who seem to go out of their way to antagonize others. This is a cultural problem that will not be cured overnight.
But holding employees accountable, especially now that a new customer service plan has been set forward, is absolutely essential.
While a smart CEO defends his employees, some things simply cannot be defended. I don’t envy Munoz’s precarious position, but do believe it is time to hold employees more accountable while empowering them to be more creative in finding solutions to customer service issues.