As many have, I watched the recent United video clip of a paid passenger, Dr. David Dao, being forcibly pulled off the over-booked plane by armed police in horror, when he refused to get off the plane. There has been public outcry, and it would be easy to enumerate the reasons of where United went wrong. Inevitably the legal process that follows will manage the details of culpability and responsibility, but one question is already self-evident: How did United, one of the largest airlines in the USA, come to believe that forcible removal of a paid passenger with little to no explanation is possible, much less in a manner so physically aggressive (Dr. Dao suffered a broken nose and lost front teeth) and humiliating?
From my perspective, this incident underscores problems with United’s company culture. I’ve had the enormous privilege of working for some of the top brands in education and business. At the top-ten business school where I worked, students were not seen nor treated as a university-issued-ID number, as a staff member I worked closely with many students and my colleagues and I often referred to them as team leaders; we grew to consider them extensions of our departments. At the financial services firm where I worked in London, clients were seen as trusted partners. Partners that we wanted to come alongside and serve. From for-profit to the NGO level, the way we view, treat and speak about others, especially those we serve, matters.
I realize that United has issued an apology via CEO Oscar Munoz. But as of April 13, on United.com’s website, the statement under “Connecting People. Uniting the World.” has yet to be updated. The statement from Munoz on shared purpose and values is dated February 8, 2017, and there he refers to passengers as customers. This isn’t a huge issue, per se, but given the events that occurred, it would behoove United to reconsider their corporate language, to remember that yes, the people who fly United are indeed paying customers, but above that, they are passengers. They are people, humans, first.
As a businessperson, I know how tempting is to focus solely on the bottom line. But the pitfall is that so much is lost when we do so. In United’s case, this myopic focus on one overbooked paid seat clearly led to unnecessary violence, a lawsuit in motion and a bruised company brand. Fortunately there has been much focus in the last decade on the triple bottom line, in short: people, planet, profit. However, I am encouraged by recent literature on the quadruple bottom line; it is often referred to as purpose (expressed as spirituality or culture). REI is a great example of this; each year the company refuses to open their 145+ stores on Black Friday as part of their #OptOutside campaign to encourage their employees, and others, to get outdoors. Moreover, employees are paid for this day off. It’s counter-intuitive but it speaks legions into their brand, their company culture and their mission. United has a chance now to re-brand themselves, to focus on their quadruple bottom line, and elevate their culture, one focused on ‘connecting people’ to the same as profit.