What can HR learn from the United deplaning debacle?

United Airlines is facing a PR nightmare after a video emerged showing a passenger being forcibly removed from an ‘overbooked’ flight. While the debate rages on regarding passenger rights when an airline requests ‘volunteers’ to give up their seats, are there lessons that HR can learn from the incident?

In an internal email to staff, United CEO Oscar Munoz initially defended employees’ conduct, saying the passenger in question had been “disruptive and belligerent” and praising staff for going “above and beyond”.

Here, it can be argued that he failed to truly investigate and confirm the facts of the incident before deciding on a course of action.

This initial muted response, which did not include an apology, led to severe backlash across the globe, with the video of the injured passenger going viral on the news and social media.

The passenger was David Dao, a 69-year-old physician, who is now in hospital being treated for his injuries.

After Munoz’ early statement, he then retracted and has since issued several apologies to the press about the way the customer was treated. He told ABC News:

“He can’t be. He was a paying passenger sitting on our seat in our aircraft and no one should be treated that way. Period.”

He went on to blame the incident on ‘system failure’ and insufficient training from the United Airlines company:

It was a system failure. We have not provided our front line supervisors, managers and individuals with the proper tools, policies, procedures that allow them to use their common sense.

The airline has since reimbursed everyone on-board the flight for the price of their ticket and placed the officers who removed the passenger on administrative leave.

There are here two HR issues to consider. Should the internal emails, as private business documents, have been shared? Should companies back their employees unconditionally, regardless of the consequences, or do they need to be more aware?

Pam Rogerson is HR Director for the ELAS Group says:

“There is a lot to be said for supporting your employees when you TRULY believe they have been subjected to unacceptable behaviour. Just as employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees, companies are also at risk of claims from their employees in the event they are injured physically or emotionally during the course of their duties. This is maybe more apparent if, for example, you are working in front line services – police, fire, ambulance or hospitals. We have all heard accounts where nurses have been subjected to abusive behaviour and this is clearly not acceptable.

“It’s critical from an HR perspective to ensure that the investigatory process is followed to the letter whenever any kind of incident occurs, especially one as high profile as this. In these days of smart phones and social media anyone can become a so-called citizen journalist and, whereas previously companies might have been able to keep more control over coverage following an incident, it’s now more important than ever to ensure you establish all the facts before speaking publically. While no company wants to throw their employees under the proverbial bus, sometimes it is better to acknowledge mistakes, apologise and fix the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“Internal emails are private business documents and, as such, should be classed as private and confidential. As we’ve seen before internal documents do get leaked and once the cat is out of the bag there is no way of putting it back in. Before putting anything in writing, companies should look at how it could be perceived should a leak occur. You will be liable from public opinion for what you write so, if in any doubt, don’t write it in the first place. In my opinion United could not have handled this incident any worse, and they will struggle to come back from the reputational fallout.”

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