United 3341 and the failure of sustainable values

Power Player

United 3341 and the failure of sustainable values

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What could I possibly contribute to the countless commentaries you already have read about this event? Perhaps a new interpretation of what went wrong at United both in the initial act and, particularly, in the CEO's total bungle of the aftermath. I believe both are rooted in a failure of United's core values.

The Flight 3411 incident was a customer care crisis and, as such, a type of crisis that could hit almost every company that offers a product or service. Another category of potential crises that could hit almost any type of company unexpectedly is an environmental crisis.

Doubt me? Ask BP. Heck, Amazon and Microsoft might have considered it an unexpected environmental "crisis" when their headquarters were targeted by Greenpeace ("How green is your cloud?") back in 2012 because they were not expressing sufficient commitment to using green energy in their empire of data centers.

Knowing how to respond when faced with an unexpected environmental crisis is one reason why "sustainability" belongs in every company's core value statement. Of course, the main reason is because sustainability is the right thing to do. Like employee safety, the moral imperative of sustainability is uncontroversial and should unite (pun intended) any employee base no matter how large and disparate.

As with all core values, one focused on sustainability will have an impact only if the effort is expended across the organization to make sure understanding of the core values and personal commitment to adherence to them is real and applies to everyone from the unpaid interns to the CEO and beyond, all the way to the board of directors.

Who's culpable?

So let's go back and look at the core values failures in around Flight 3411.

The United CEO's initial "damage control" efforts, while generally spectacularly counterproductive, did succeed in one way. It diverted attention from the inexcusable behavior of the United ground staff and flight crew on the scene.

Most at fault has to be the pilot, of whom not much has been heard and little critique has been made. As the captain of the aircraft, he or she has total authority over everyone on board. The captain does not have the excuse of "I am just a low-level order taker." He or she must have been aware of what was transpiring behind the cockpit in the cabin of that little commuter jet. And he or she could have stopped it with one word, but didn't.

And then there is the culpability of the ground staff and the flight attendants who triggered the "de-accommodation." How could they stand there and watch their passenger bloodied and bodily dragged down the aisle?

Even the United employees who took the seats of the disembarked passengers — why didn't they refuse to do so under those circumstances? So what if they needed to get to Louisville? It is a four-hour drive.

Every company prepares for crises (and airlines, for obvious reasons, more than most) but companies prepare for expected types of crises. As the incidents described above illustrate, every company runs the risk that it will experience an unexpected crisis. BP, for example, undoubtedly had prepared for oil spills but never one of the magnitude of Deepwater Horizon.

So, no matter how much training you provide, or emergency procedures a company develops, a CEO's baseline instruction to her employee base for on-the-spot, never-previously-anticipated situations has to be "just do the right thing."

In the case of Flight 3411, numerous United employees were at the scene and none did the right thing. And, while it may sound squishy to you, I believe their behavior reflects not inadequate training, but rather a core values problem. Either United didn't have these core values to begin with, or it had a set of values that these employees, at least, felt no compunction to live by.

The search for core values

I Googled "United Airlines core values" to see what they were. I was confused by what I found. There is no clear statement of corporate core values. The closest thing I could find was a paean to the twin values of "inclusion and diversity," laudable to be sure, but focused entirely on the makeup of the employee base. Inclusion and diversity are values not aimed at customer care.

There is also on the United website a 12-point "customer commitment," which is interesting but not a statement of core values. It reads like a training manual written by lawyers with an eye on minimizing litigation.

Tellingly, more than half of the "commitments" cover ways United hopes to treat you after they already have screwed you over. If you have flown, you know the ways: lost luggage, treatment during tarmac delays, disinformation about flight schedules and, yes, overbooking and bumping, etc. It is no wonder the employees on the scenes fumbled the initial response: There was no core value on customer care to fall back on.

Turning now to United CEO Oscar Munoz's initial damage-control efforts. Amazingly, in his first two statements he perfectly violated two basic principles that I learned from my parents before I was 10: first, "never defend the indefensible"; and, then, "never offer versions of events which are inconsistent with what actually happened plainly in view of everyone else." (Are you listening, Sean "Inauguration Crowd" Spicer?)

Munoz is now the lightning rod, the main object of public scorn, because he felt he needed to "emphatically" stand in support of his 80,000 employees. Evidently, he assumed the horribly bad situational management by the United employees involved that day otherwise would be construed as an indictment of all United employees. It needn't be.

If United had core values that encompassed customer care — some variation on the old cliche "the customer is always right" — but one which the organization and its people really believed in, then Munoz could have distanced his company and himself from the sins of omission of the United people at Flight 3411. He could have said — and would have been correct in saying — that those few employees not only let down the passenger; they let down the company by failing to live the company's core values that day.

If I learned one thing during all my years in corporate leadership, it is that people want to work for an institution that stands for something, that believes in a way of acting and that has a set of principles adherence to which rises above the cold pursuit of short-term profit.

The role of the board

By the way, where are Munoz's bosses in all this? The United Airlines board of directors has stayed deeply in the background as the CEO botched the initial response.

In normal times, I would say that Munoz's mishandling of the crisis was so bad that he had endangered his ability to be effective going forward as United's CEO. Fortunately for him, in the age of Trump, no one's attention and outrage will linger too long on such an incident when there is a potential for nuclear war breaking out on the Korean Peninsula.

So, the United board could have and should have done more to express publicly its own collective remorse over this incident, to reaffirm its own absolute commitment to United's core values (however those values might be defined) and, if the heat grows too great on the CEO, to protect Munoz by recusing him of his responsibility to speak on behalf of the company in respect of the Flight 3411 incident and aftermath.

The full authority of the board needs to be behind the company's belated pledge to ensure that something like this "never happens again to any United customer anywhere." Likewise, we need to do more to focus on whether the moral authority for a company's behavior, whether it be in the area of customer care or sustainability, begins with and is shared by its board of directors, individually and collectively.

CEOs come and go, but corporate boards provide the institutional continuity, they are the linchpin in all of this on the corporate core value of sustainability. The environmental community needs to do more to ensure that they fulfill their responsibility.