Oh, United. I’ll never fly with you again. You clearly don’t respect customers, and you don’t even have the decency to pretend you do. You can stand behind your employees all you like, but not when they were clearly in the wrong.
The question is, with so much research and literature and good practice instruction material out there about crisis management, why did United make such a huge blunder?
The two recent crises I am referring to are when United refused to allow two teen girls who were guests of an employee to board the plane whilst wearing leggings because it did not adhere to the employee dress code; and when officials violently dragged a man off a flight for refusing to cooperate when he was randomly selected to give up his seat for United employees that were waiting at the gate for their guaranteed to them even after the flight was full.
These are two instances where there was a clear path for United to take, and it did not take it. Both times, United chose to side with its employees who were apparently only trying to do the right thing, instead of making it clear that they were embarrassed by the behavior of their employees and that they were going to make it up to their customers.
When a crisis like this happens in your company, such that your employees used their judgment and the public disagrees with that judgment, it is always a better idea to side with customers. United should immediately have realized that public outrage was going to outweigh some disgruntled employees in terms of damage. Yes, any company has to worry about employee happiness and satisfaction as a matter of reputation–but these are situations where your reputation is determined more by customers on social media than by the employees involved.
In relation to the latter crisis, as Alex Abad-Santos writes for Vox, what other industry would it ever be okay for a company to take away a service after its been paid for? These are situations where the customer is your utmost concern, for they are the one being inconvenienced by your decision to overbook a flight. There was no reason for such violence, especially when the customer who was dragged off the flight was a doctor, who was refusing to leave his seat due to having patients to attend to the next day.
In the former crisis, it was technically employees that were being barred from flying because United was worried about its image being tarnished by allowing them on the flight in “inappropriate attire”. My question is, would anyone have known that these two girls dressed in leggings were employees if they were not dressed in a United uniform or were wearing some sort of identification? Probably not. This was a case of pickiness and the sexualization of two girls, which pissed off a lot of women who wear leggings as a matter of comfort (myself included).
There were so many other words United CEO Oscar Munoz could have chosen to use in his statement after the latter crisis occurred than “re-accommodate” in terms of what they did to the customer who was dragged off the flight. He wasn’t apologizing for what happened to the poor customer (though he did directly apologize later). He wasn’t apologizing at all. He was annoyed that someone made a stupid decision, and he had to deal with it. Not a great way to handle your company’s reputation.