I often travel to the US, and was interested to receive an email from the chief executive of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz. His email profusely apologised for the way armed officers forcibly dragged a passenger off one of his company’s planes in Chicago recently. The share price of United Airlines reportedly dropped by $1.4 billion after the incident.
Few would have missed the damning videos and media photos of 69-year-old Dr David Dao, dragged along the aisle, and later blood streaming down his face, simply because he’d refused to give up his seat to a crew member. He was one of four people selected randomly to be “bumped” from the flight to make room for crew. Apparently his nose was broken, two teeth were damaged and he had concussion.
It was memorable, disgusting behaviour on the airline’s part, firstly because of the industry’s sanctioned practice of armed ‘officers’ using force to remove passengers, and secondly because initially Munoz stood by his company’s actions and even accused Dr Dao of being “belligerent”.
Payout and apology for actions
The airline has since settled, paying Dao an undisclosed sum. Meantime, Munoz emailed a mea culpa to all us Mileage Plus customers. It contains the following interesting statement:
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“We can never say we are sorry enough for what occurred, but we also know meaningful actions will speak louder than words.
“For the past several weeks, we have been urgently working to answer two questions: How did this happen, and how can we do our best to ensure this never happens again?”
I’ve bolded the line above because it was United Airlines’ actions that got the airline into trouble in the first place. Munoz blames letting “corporate policies get in the way of our shared values”. He offers a raft of measures, including a new air miles app, eliminating red tape on lost bags and no longer asking law enforcement officers to remove passengers from flights except in security or safety matters. He affirms that passengers have a right to expect more of his company and promises to do better in future.
Is this enough? Dr Dao and others who’ve been poorly treated in any similar circumstances will probably not feel mollified by company baubles and loyalty “gifts”. United Airlines has said it will change its overbooking practice. Such a practice amounts to breaching a contract of good faith with the people who pay them: their customers.
And it’s not just United Airlines in the public crosshairs: Australian author Mem Fox recently wrote about her unpleasant experience when going through customs at LA airport. She too has since received an apology.
Companies and certainly nations have much to learn from these and infinitely worse episodes. They need to:
Remember we’re dealing with people
People are generally not criminal rogues — yes, we live in paranoid times and political leaders cynically capitalise on such emotions, but this is generally no excuse for heavy-handed tactics. Soon after the Dao event, some media sources dug into Dao’s background — it is totally irrelevant to the behaviour and actions he received.
Treat others as you’d like to be treated
Policies are important in setting boundaries and expectations of behaviour, but it means little when the treatment doled out in no way reflects such expectations. In other words, companies and nations should remember the golden rule: treat others as you’d like to be treated.
Design policies with stakeholders and users in mind
There’s no point stomping about insisting this is how things should be done — that’s a brilliant way to stir up immediate resistance. Sometimes even in democracies, there’s too much “I/we know better than you”. Even when it’s true, it’s no way to win friends and influence people, as the late Dale Carnegie would attest.
Notice how “policies” and “police” come from the same old French root word? Both mean “to keep order”. Order is necessary for protection and accomplishing things more smoothly, but officiousness can quickly tip into persecution and brutality. Once that occurs, then expressions of regret definitely acquire a hollow ring.
So, what are better ways to demonstrate that actions speak louder than words?
1. Remember profit is never more important than being ethical
This means doing and being seen to do the right thing, not just mouthing platitudes and corporate mantras while ticking boxes on company ledgers. Midases with a cynical attitude to business (whether private, not-for-profit or bureaucracy) eventually find their actions (and words) paint them into unfavourable corners.
2. Respect people and customers
Whether you’re delivering a particular service or product, or ensuring accountability and governance, just do it, do it properly, and respect the people who use your services and buy your products. Pay attention to what people are saying and doing, and listen when they are raising matters and concerns with you.
3. Be sure to deploy staff and managers who are well trained
They should know their roles, have clear procedures and work well with others as the necessary interface between your company, department, or organisation. Meet them halfway and your actions are already speaking volumes.
4. Reward all staff and stakeholders for doing the right thing by others
Showcase such actions wherever and whenever possible.
It’s not just the people on the ground and front-of-house carrying out instructions who must shoulder the blame — they are a reflection of what goes on at the top. Company culture is spelled out whenever news stories of the United Airlines variety go viral. Oscar Munoz has belatedly recognised this, but he, his board of directors and his staff have a long, long way to go before people’s perceptions of United Airlines improve.
Civility, fairness, humility and “walking the talk” — in other words, the humane, correct behaviours — are what matter. It starts with each individual and has a decided trickle-up and trickle-down effect, which will never be ignored for long.