My Company Isn’t as Stupid as United

United…. What’s up with dragging your customer off your airplane?

United says they overbooked the flight and needed four seats for employees, so they offered travel vouchers to encourage people to take the next flight. When no one took them up on the offer, they randomly chose four people to remove.

One of the four wouldn’t leave, and he was dragged off by law enforcement. He is now suffering from a concussion, broken nose, and two lost front teeth, according to this article in the Chicago Times.

You might be thinking, “no one in my company would ever do something like this,” or, “my company isn’t that stupid,” but I implore you to give it some more thought. As I wrote in a recent article about Uber, often people get caught up in things because of the situation outside of them, and they do things they wouldn’t normally do.

Even the law enforcement officers were caught up. They dragged the customer off the plane and I bet are regretting what they did. Interesting that none of them said to United, “No, I don’t think I want to participate in forcibly removing a paying customer who has done nothing wrong.” They were just doing what made sense inside the institution we call travel.

As for United, they set up their institution in such a way that abuse seems normal. About a year ago I witnessed some terrible abuse of United customers myself. The woman calling out the boarding groups on the loud speaker was extraordinarily rude – to everyone. So rude, in fact, that this recent dragging incident literally didn’t surprise me. It was almost like the next step from what I witnessed a year ago.

I considered filming her and, admittedly, thought about how it might go viral and then I would make an appearance on the Today Show to discuss this gross misconduct. But as I pulled out my phone I realized it wasn’t her fault she hated her job, it was United that was responsible for her behavior. I didn’t want to ruin her life, so I put my phone away. (Though I have refused to book United flights ever since.)

Researchers from workplace bullying also agree the institution plays a big role in bad behavior at work. Many research studies find that organizations with bureaucracy, hierarchy, high competition, many long-time employees, many smart employees, a machismo culture, or other such factors can cause bullying to happen.

I don’t know much about United’s culture per se, but I’d guess it’s fairly bureaucratic and focused on hierarchy – if people are unhappy, I assume reporting it is more complicated than simply telling their manager who could then address it.

If it was easy to solve problems at United, the employee I witnessed would have been stopped mid-yell. A manager or peer would have stepped in and taken over. And if employees were empowered to troubleshoot and problem solve, they would have offered more money to get volunteers instead of forcing people off. I don’t know, but I suspect $800 was the maximum they were allowed to offer, or offering more is highly discouraged.

While United has, of course, announced it will be reviewing its procedures for overbooking and removing people, and will no longer forcibly remove innocent people, it hasn’t made any mention of addressing the real problem: Culture.

It has a culture that appears to leave its employees unhappy, and willing to engage in abuse. United needs a cultural overhaul.

I’ve also been thinking about what might have happened if the person dragged was an employee rather than a customer. It most certainly would have been considered workplace violence and even assault.

Would it be considered workplace bullying? The answer is yes. Although we often say bullying is prolonged and repeated, severely egregious incidents “count.” The same goes for harassment. The EEOC uses words like pervasive and enduring, but if egregious enough a one-time incident “counts.”

Does your organizational culture foster abuse or respect? Here’s a short assessment to help you figure it out.