HR Hero Line

6 steps to avoid crashing and burning like United Airlines

by Michael P. Maslanka

Someday you may be the point person when your company has a PR nightmare. Let’s see what we can learn from the recent debacle in which a passenger was dragged off a United Airlines flight.

Lesson #1: Measure twice, cut once
Let’s start with the first of two apologies from United’s CEO:

This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to reaccommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.

The CEO then wrote a letter to all employees saying, “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”

While speed is of the essence, you first must figure out if your company has anything to apologize for. In United’s case, it was as though the CEO had already made up his mind to back the employees. It would have been better to say, “This is a troubling event. We are conducting a preliminary investigation and will report back to you and the press by the close of business tomorrow.”

Because a video of the passenger being removed from the flight went viral, the company didn’t have long to conduct a preliminary assessment. And in light of the video, the CEO’s second apology should have been the first.

Lesson #2: Do not use weasel language
“Reaccommodate”? That’s like saying an employee was not fired in a reduction in force but rather was let go because the company was being downsized. Unemployment is unemployment. Do not try to put lipstick on a pig.

The first apology and the letter to employees did not work, so the CEO issued another apology. The second apology was much better:

The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of those sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened. Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologize to the customer [who was] forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.

I want you to know that we take full responsibility and we will work to make it right.

It’s never too late to do the right thing. I have committed to our customers and our employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again. This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, [and] how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30.

I promise you we will do better.

In hindsight, the second apology may have been a better choice out of the starting gate.

Lesson #3: Get a crisis management firm to help you
The second apology was not written by the CEO—it was written by a crisis management firm. Be sure to have such a firm on your speed dial, and take steps to protect its advice under the attorney-client privilege. Otherwise, all—and I mean all—discussions between management and the crisis management firm can be brought up during depositions.

Lesson #4: Resist the urge to fight back or make excuses
Sometimes the boss wants to fight back by impugning people who complain. For example, news reports stated that the passenger who was beaten and removed from the flight has a checkered past. Trying to exploit situations like that can lead to disaster. When you give an apology, use explicit and strong language like the language in United’s second apology. Don’t say, “Well, I am so sorry you took my remark the wrong way” or “Events would not have turned out the way they did if Joe had only done this or that.”

Lesson #5: Explain how you will ensure it never happens again
This step is key. People will forgive if you explain how you will fix a problem, not just that you will fix it. As I tell new lawyers, “Don’t tell me. Show me!” I stress the importance of this step. If you fail to fix the problem after you proclaim you will, a jury will punish you big time.

Lesson #6: Give a little to get a lot
Sometimes you will get sued in situations that are less dramatic than the one that confronted United. You may have flubbed the dub a bit (or maybe even more than a bit). Your deposition will be taken. An employee’s lawyer may ask trick questions. He may ask, “You investigated my client’s complaint. What grade would you give yourself?” See the trick? Give yourself an “A+” and you are arrogant and should be punished. But if you give yourself a “B,” then there was more you could have done, and you should be punished. Is there a way out? Tell the attorney, “I can’t give myself a grade, but I did my best” or “I did all that was humanly possible.” Also, a lawyer may ask, “Is there anything you would have done differently?” Say something, anything.

Bottom line
Check out Art of the Apology: How, When, and Why to Give and Accept Apologies by Lauren M. Bloom. It’s a very good book on giving apologies in all sorts of situations. While I hope you are never in the hot seat like United is, you will need to give or accept an apology at some point. Bloom packs lots of usual advice into 224 pages.

Michael Maslanka is an assistant professor of law at the UNT Dallas College of Law, a partner with FisherBroyles, LLP, and managing editor of Texas Employment Law Letter. He can be reached at Michael.Maslanka@untdallas.edu.