People & Human Resources

Korea Airlines executive forced to resign over macadamia nuts spat: Why it can be tricky working with the boss’ daughter

Eloise Keating /

Going nuts: Korean Airlines executive vice president Heather Cho with Korean pop star Rain

A top Korean Airlines executive and the daughter of the company’s chairman has been forced to resign from a number of her roles after throwing a tantrum over a packet of macadamia nuts.

A flight from New York to Seoul was delayed and a flight attendant kicked off the plane late last week, when Korean Airlines executive vice president Heather Cho objected to being served her snack in a packet, instead of on a plate.

According to Fairfax, the incident forced the plane to return to its terminal, causing a delay of 11 minutes.

But the public relations fallout over the incident has been much greater, with Cho, who is also known as Cho Hyun-Ah, stepping down from some of her duties at the family-run company days later.

CNN reports Cho has stepped down from her role managing the airline’s catering and in-flight sales business, its cabin service and hotel business divisions, but will retain her title of executive vice president.

Cho is the eldest daughter of Korean Airlines chairman Cho Yang-ho, who has apologised publicly for the incident, telling media outlets in a statement the incident is being investigated.

Peter Gahan, director of the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne, told SmartCompany Cho had little choice but to resign from some of her roles.

“It is pretty bad behaviour and given the amount of media coverage it has attracted and is continuing to attract, there could be reputational effects for the business”.

Gahan says as a member of the senior executive team, Cho has a responsibility to protect that reputation.

Gahan says ongoing concerns about airline security is also a factor as Cho’s tantrum could have compromised the safety and security of the airlines’ paying customers. 

Martin Nally, director of HR Anywhere, believes Cho’s tantrum and subsequent resignation holds important lessons for Australian family businesses.

“This is important because the vast majority of businesses in Australia are family businesses,” Nally says.

“Family businesses account for 70% of all businesses in Australia, they have an average turnover of $12 million and 37 employees.”

Read More: The secrets of success in a family business

Nally says it is important for all family business employees to “genuinely understand” the dynamics of the business.

“And it is really important family members do not overplay the family card, which is what has happened here.”

Nally says, in successful family businesses, family members “have genuine roles and responsibilities and they are held to account”.

“A lot of the bigger ones have independent directors on the board, which assists the family to understand the standard of governance required and the set of behaviours,” he says.

“Irrespective of whether it’s a family business or not, legislation, rules and regulations still apply.”

At the end of the day, Nally says the key issue is “credible leadership, irrespective of their position”.

He says family members can often be “under the microscope” more than other employees and the politics of family-run companies can affect all employees.

For this reason, Nally recommends anyone considering taking a job in a family business do their homework and understand the culture of the company first.

“Do your due diligence,” he says. “They will be checking your references, so you should reference check the family too.”

SmartCompany contacted Korean Airlines but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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Eloise Keating

Eloise Keating is the editor of SmartCompany. Previously, Eloise was news editor at Books+Publishing, the trade press for the Australian book industry.

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