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The most important United Airlines policy change after its dragging fiasco could also be the hardest

United Airlines released a report and a list of 10 policy changes it plans in the aftermath of a public relations fiasco. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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After United Airlines' epic passenger-dragging debacle, many people saw a recipe for an easy fix: Common sense and a dose of judgment from workers on the front lines could have gone a long way to preventing the public relations disaster. Why couldn't employees have simply decided to offer more money and entice someone else off the plane?

Coming just days after United suffered another social media furor for barring employees' teenage girls from a flight because their leggings didn't fit a dress code, both incidents helped harden an image of the airline as a rules-bound hierarchy, one reinforced by a Wall Street Journal story about its by-the-book culture.

“This is the second example of the application of a policy seeming to be missing the element of common sense,” Carreen Winters, who leads the corporate reputation practice at the public relations firm MWW, said of the dragging fiasco this month. “In any company with a heavy number of customer-contact jobs, employees need to be empowered.”

Now as United rolls out its list of 10 policy changes, it is including a promise to do just that. Among the list of changes it announced Thursday morning, which included raising the compensation ceiling for bumped passengers to $10,000 and creating an automated system to solicit volunteers on oversold flights, was a vow to “empower employees to address customer service issues in the moment.”

United dragging report: ‘Our review shows that many things went wrong that day’

But while management experts say empowering employees may be among the most important things United tries to do as it recovers from this crisis, it's also among the most difficult, requiring a tricky balance of logistical tools, cultural reinforcement and potential structural changes to make it clear how the company hopes employees will behave.

“This isn’t just a matter of empowerment, it’s a matter of cultural change,” said Ethan Burris, a professor at the University of Texas's McCombs School of Business. “And with a rules-based culture, saying 'empowerment' is very counterculture.” 

United's 11-page report outlined not only its plan, but what went wrong during the episode on April 9, when passenger David Dao refused to give up his seat and was forcefully dragged off the plane. In the report, it said “agents did not have the authority to act independently and authorize higher levels of compensation or provide other modes of transportation” and that one of its failures was “providing insufficient employee training and empowerment to handle a situation like this.”

To give employees more power on the front lines, United said it would launch an app that will let them directly compensate customers who have experienced poor service. The app will let flight attendants (starting in July) and gate agents (later this year) compensate passengers with mileage, credit toward a future flight or other compensation after a problem occurs. They won't have to seek permission from higher-ups first when using the app, United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy confirmed in an email, using an example of a flight attendant giving miles or travel credit on the spot to a passenger whose in-flight entertainment wasn't working.

That's important, said Brian Kropp, who leads the human resources practice for the consultancy CEB. All too often, he said, companies talk about “empowerment” but use it ambiguously, without giving people a say over something tangible: money.

“In order to empower employees, you need to be willing to give them control over budget and spending,” he said. “You have to put money in their hands where they can actually make decisions.” United's app could help give them that sense of control while still offering guidelines over what amounts would be appropriate, Kropp said. 

But shifting a rules-driven culture to one that leans toward letting employees use their good judgment will take more than just changing some rules and equipping them with an app, experts say. Hiring and promoting people comfortable with a less by-the-book culture and offering training that helps them adjust to the new reality are both necessary, Burris said.

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Unlike luxury retailer Nordstrom, known for its permissive approach to letting employees handle customer problems, a legacy airline has plenty of government regulations and other safety rules they must balance with customer needs.

“There’s a training process that’s going to need to take place that not only reinforces 'here’s what you have to follow' but helps them unlearn a set of rules they’ve had in place for a long time,” Burris said.

Also essential is to reward and celebrate people who make good judgments and not punish those who have to ask forgiveness after going too far. “If they don't do a good job of promoting and celebrating those instances,” Burris said, “then this stuff is going to seem like a bunch of hot air.”

Others had suggestions for structural changes that could help the airline respond quickly and more appropriately when another crisis does occur. Lawrence Parnell, a former public relations executive and a professor at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management, said it's unusual that United's corporate communications department reports to its human resources team, rather than directly to the chief executive officer or to a chief marketing officer. (United confirmed this structure but would not comment further on whether it intended to make changes or if it had an effect on its handling of the crisis.)

“It seems, intuitively, that the farther away that the communications people are, the less likely they are in a crisis situation to be nimble and responsive,” Parnell said, citing a recent survey showing that just 4 percent of companies have their communications teams report to H.R. “Their first response was to put out an email to employees because that’s what H.R. people do. But nothing is internal anymore.” 

A United spokesperson also declined to answer questions about whether there would be further management changes focused on shifting the company's culture. But the airline's CEO, Oscar Munoz, who has lost a planned addition of the chairman's title and seen his compensation incentives revamped in the aftermath of the crisis, seemed to indicate there's more to come.

“Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: Our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what’s right,” he said in a statement. “This is a turning point for all of us at United, and it signals a culture shift toward becoming a better, more customer-focused airline. Our customers should be at the center of everything we do and these changes are just the beginning of how we will earn back their trust.”

Read also:

United CEO Oscar Munoz: The rise and fall of a 'Communicator of the Year'

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