HR lessons from United Airlines' PR disaster

HR lessons from United Airlines' PR disaster

The United Airlines debacle has landed the airline in hot water after a video emerged of a passenger being forcibly dragged off a flight as it was "too full".

In an internal email to staff, United Airlines’ 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".

Following outcry, Munoz has since revised his statement, saying that the passenger was not at fault, telling 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."

However, has the damage already been done? Should companies back their employees unconditionally, regardless of the consequences, or do they need to be more aware?

Pam Rogerson, HR Director for the ELAS Group, dissects the complexities of supporting employees whilst protecting customers and your brand: "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.

"In this case United CEO Oscar Munoz made an initial statement that the passenger had been ‘disruptive and belligerent'. In this age of heightened security, one could be forgiven for supporting staff if you truly believe that they were under threat however this is clearly not the case here, and the CEO deserves a Golden Raspberry for making such a fundamental error.

"He has failed to investigate and confirm the facts of the case before committing himself, and the company, to this course of action. Munoz then went on to say that employees ‘followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this' - as anyone who has seen the video can attest, clearly they need to change their procedures.

"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 of pressing importance 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 should be classed as private and confidential. However, internal documents do get leaked but 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.”

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