What United’s CEO Must Do to Help Employee Morale

Jason Hanold, CEO and Managing Partner of HR Executive Search Firm Hanold Associates Offers Insight into the United PR Crisis


United is embroiled in an extraordinary external PR crisis that is shaking customer confidence in the airline, but let’s not forget its 87,000 employees across the world. The torrent of negative stories, social media posts and videos – and how management responds to all of it – threatens to undermine their confidence in their employer.

It’s the job of United CEO Oscar Munoz and his team to show that he has employees’ backs while also ensuring consumers that they will get much better service than what transpired Sunday night in a plane in Chicago.

Four steps he ought to take right now:

  • Elevate Employee Engagement: United is at risk of disengaging employees if management’s ongoing response doesn’t strike a balance between trusting and valuing both employees and United’s customers. We have seen examples of what happens after a public outrage if leadership doesn’t support its employees. Engagement is simply the discretionary effort that each one of us brings to work every day. We bring less effort if we feel as though we are not valued, supported, respected, and safe to perform. United’s CEO has to make employees feel all of those things, but he may want to first revisit commonly held practices within the industry that consistently anger customers and place employees in the line of fire and confrontation.
  • Change Consumer-Unfriendly Practices: He could start by abandoning the practice of “overbooking” flights. In our time of social media, the profit associated with such a practice no longer outweighs the bad public sentiment and diluted employee morale associated with the more common instances of bumping passengers from flights. I recently booked direct, non-stop flights from Chicago to Jackson Hole for my family of seven people. We were advised days before the trip that our flights were changed to connecting flights from Jackson through Denver to Chicago, with NO offer to re-price the flights. When I asked about a reduction in fare, the United agent actually said, “Some people will pay more for a connecting flight so they can get off the plane to smoke.” Maybe in the 1950s, but not now.  When I pushed, they re-priced the fare, but not without two layers of supervisor involvement. I’m a fairly savvy traveler, but what happens to those who wouldn’t think to ask, beg, and insist? They’re taken advantage of by these types of practices. For employees, this needless and hostile back-and-forth with consumers makes their jobs less enjoyable and builds distrust with management.
  • Shift from Arrogance to Vulnerability:  Airlines know they won’t face much more competition than they have now because it’s an almost impossibly high cost of entry into the industry. Over time, an organizational hubris develops. A sense of invincibility. “Customers need us; the industry needs us” kind of mentality.  It influences how you interact and approach your customers and employees. United’s CEO needs to restore a sense of vulnerability within the employee ranks and leadership team. Shift the mindset to “we need our customers” and infuse this into every interaction and practice.
  • Hold all Accountable: To find balance, a CEO must also show tough love. In other words, “we care about our employees, we support them, value them, and will also hold them accountable for their behavior and judgements.”