Blame rigid corporate culture for United's failings

Negative teaching examples are usually ill-advised for guidance. But in the last several weeks, the airline industry has focused our attention on what can go dramatically wrong with a corporation’s culture that relies inflexibly on rules, becoming prisoners of policies. They provide useful examples of what to avoid.

On March 26, a United Airlines gate agent barred two teenaged girls from flying from Denver to Minneapolis while wearing leggings. Gate agents maintained the leggings were inappropriate attire for passengers holding a certain class of ticket. Note the curious designation — a certain class of ticket.


Two week later, United personnel had a passenger forcefully removed from a Chicago plane bound for Louisville. In this series of well-documented errors, missteps were evident — from the gate agents and security, to the communications professionals and even the C-suite. What do all these errors have in common? They occurred in a series of high-stress situations where the reactions were driven by policy rather than common sense.


Recently, we’ve seen examples of companies embedding too much formality and rigor into their customer-facing culture, rather than encouraging flexible solutions. In low-stress situations, the stakes aren’t so high and mistakes are less apparent.

But in high-stress situations, these errors are often clumsy enough to be newsworthy, generating waves of print and social media that captivate viewers to the detriment of the corporation, employees and customers.

One can only wonder what mental gymnastics were needed to justify forcefully pulling a passenger off a plane. It’s not a stretch to think that someone loses a seat, but dragging the passenger off while he hears, “it’s out of my control” and “it’s our policy” is memorable for all the wrong reasons. 

Policies are an important part of many organizations. If implemented in the right way, they can provide guidance to employees and influence their behaviors. In turn, those behaviors can shape a corporate culture.

Creating a strong culture means creating one that brings the entire organizational model to life and includes how employees are assessed and rewarded, the peer-to-peer networks that allow employees to share success stories and ideas and how the business units and functions are organized.

However, United Airlines’ moral compass has been held hostage by its policies. Sadly, its passengers have been too. There’s got to be a better way.

United’s initial reaction didn’t deliver a solution. The airline simply changed some policies to ensure there wasn’t a repeat scenario. In its email to customers, United said it was their job to make sure “….customers will be treated with the highest level of service and the deepest sense of dignity and respect.”

But how’s that done? By example. United’s first message treats its employees with disrespect on two levels: first, by not demonstrating, through a strong culture of examples, what their customer commitment of “providing a high level of service to our customers” looks like. Second, by not empowering employees with a way to provide that level of service without a step-by-step manual of policies.

Netflix is known for having a strong culture. Its policy statement consists of only five words: “Act in Netflix’s best interest.” They demonstrate to employees what this looks like in practice by allowing employees to purchase the rights to a new show if they think it is a winner and allowing employees to travel to meetings whenever they are needed.

There’s no 20-step approval process to add a show or a lengthy approval process for travel arrangements. Netflix believes in empowering its employees and demonstrates it in the way they’ve set up their organizational model. Any movie or television executive would tell you that making decisions on which shows to green light is one of the most stressful elements of their job.

A failed show can haunt them or ruin their career. Netflix employees take on the stress making multi-million-dollar decisions that could make or break subscriptions and the success of the company. However, they continue to deliver and grow the business thanks to the strong culture that empowers them to make the decisions they believe are right for the company and their subscribers. 

United, and airlines around the globe, should take note. The changes that need to take place revolve around the culture and aligning the organizational model to bring that culture to life. How are the companies organized? How do they assess and reward employees? What are the decision rights and the internal stories they share?

A strong culture sets employees up to make the right decision for their company and their customers in all situations. It allows employees to think and act as human beings even in stressful situations.

A few policy changes may help take the guessing out of handling a few challenging situations, but they cannot account for all challenging situations. Only a robust culture with human responsibility can give employees that guidance. 


Micah Alpern is principal in leadership, change and organization practice at A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.