HR in the Unfriendly Skies

With airline-related confrontations going viral on an almost daily basis, experts say HR plays a critical role in defusing future confrontations before they ever start.

By Carol Patton

There's really no substitute for good judgment.

Perhaps that's the lesson HR professionals can learn from United Airlines' recent fiasco involving a passenger who refused to be bumped from the plane and was then dragged out by law enforcement. (Ed's note: American Airlines is also dealing with its own onboard incident gone viral, after a flight attendant was filmed allegedly striking a mother with a stroller while trying to wrest it from her.)

What went so wrong?

"Sometimes you put in place processes and rules [but] take away the ability for human beings to use their own good judgment," says Bruce Temkin, managing partner at the Temkin Group, a customer experience, research and consulting company in Boston. "People's sense of judgment wasn't enabled here."

So far, United's CEO Oscar Munoz has issued two apologies. The bumped passenger may receive some type of financial compensation and every passenger on that flight will receive a ticket refund.

But is that enough? Hardly, say HR professionals.

Temkin says HR can use this opportunity to either reshape the company's values and culture or communicate its existing customer-centric values to employees and emphasize how decisions must reflect them.

"Make sure to solidify, clarify and communicate what your values truly are," he says. "Look holistically at what you need to do, when you need to do it, and what are the ways you want to approach a situation like this."

PR disasters involving customers can occur anytime, anywhere. Oftentimes, Temkin says employees are embarrassed by such blunders and distance themselves from their employer, which creates an "us versus them" environment.

"Then the organization loses engagement of its employees, which will hurt," says Temkin. "The recovery process is not only about showcasing what the company believes for its customers, but equally if not more important, it's to make sure employees feel proud about how the company recovered [so] they can regain their connection with the United brand."

He points to several questions HR professionals at the airlines should consider: Should employees be given discretionary authority to raise the payment given to bumped passengers? Under what circumstances should employees be allowed to bump passengers? When does it make sense for employees to call law enforcement for

"It seems it would have been far better for United to spend an extra $200, $500 or $1,000 to incentivize someone to get off the plane rather than deal with the fallout of the entire situation," adds Carreen Winters, chief strategy officer and head of the corporate reputation practice at MWWPR, a PR firm in New York that represents airlines and other employers.

United needs to evaluate its policies through the lens of good customer relations, she says, and then provide a framework that enables employees to do their jobs well. HR must have confidence in each employee's ability to exercise good judgment and do what's right within the sphere of the policy.

Consider presenting mock scenarios during job interviews to screen out candidates unable to apply common sense to radical situations. However, supervisors who rigidly enforce policies will expect their staff to do the same. So supervisors must also learn how they can deviate from company policies within safe parameters.

Another HR challenge is ensuring that internal and external messaging match, which may not be the case at United, considering the release of a leaked employee memo that blames the bumped passenger for unfolding events. She says this may create tension in the workplace that stresses a company's culture and makes decision-making even that much harder.

"I'd also look at the performance management system to see if the values you're looking for from a service standpoint are reflected in how you evaluate employee performance," says Winters, adding that employees only observe policies they understand. "If you're not already in close alignment with your communications function, make that a priority."

Front-line staff also needs ongoing training on managing difficult customers, adds Anita Parry, director of HR at a pharmaceutical company near Princeton, N.J.

When onboarded, provide them with basic customer service skills and then build on that foundation. Refine their communication skills. Offer verbiage they can use that becomes second nature. During staff meetings, role-play scenarios that involve challenging customers.

"It has to be a consistent program that builds on individual steps to give them the confidence to do the right thing and say the right thing," says Parry. "The more training and guidance they get, the more they know over time [that they can] trust their judgment. Without it, it's an uphill battle."

Likewise, focus on delivering key information that may "lower the temperature," says Nannina Angioni, founding partner at Kaedian law firm in Los Angeles.

In United's case, she says flight attendants could have explained why passengers needed to be bumped, the selection criteria used or how these passengers would be booked on other flights that same day.

"Usually, when someone is being told, ‘This is our decision, we're not bending and you don't have a say in this,' people start getting [angry]," she says. "Litigation often arises out of process, not end result."

But no training program ensures that good judgment will always be demonstrated.

Angioni suggests creating objective protocols or policies to avoid employee decisions that may be based on unconscious bias. Leave no wiggle room for judgment. Instead, train employees in the "power of habit," she says, so they know exactly what to do and say during difficult customer interactions.

"I'm not saying you should create a staff of robotic employees, but by [helping employees] create habits, training them very clearly on criteria and protocol, you'll find less litigation, lets outrage and less media stories."

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Apr 24, 2017
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