If you were anywhere near the internet last week, you likely saw headlines about United Airlines forcibly removing a passenger from a flight on the evening of April 9 after he refused to give up his seat. The passenger had purchased a ticket and boarded the plane, but when United needed to get their own employees to the same destination, the airline chose to “bump” some customers from the flight. When no one volunteered to give up his or her seat in exchange for airline vouchers, United randomly selected passengers to remove. One of the chosen customers refused to give up his seat, and the confrontation turned bloody as Chicago Aviation Security Officers physically dragged the man from the plane. And as video footage showed, other passengers were distraught as they questioned why he was being treated in such a way.

Those other passengers saw what United employees on the scene failed to grasp—this just wasn’t right.

Clearly, United Airlines made some bad decisions here, and the company continued to make missteps over the next several days in handling the aftermath. But I can also see how this started simply enough, with airline employees making a relatively routine decision to inconvenience a few customers (those on the Chicago-to-St. Louis flight) in order to better serve a larger set of customers (those on a later flight leaving St. Louis).

The question I cannot stop asking myself is, “How did it get this far?” I’m still in disbelief that someone on United’s team didn’t step up and say, “You know what, this is getting out of hand. We’ll figure out a different way to get our crew where they need to be.” In other words, why didn’t United employees assess the circumstances and say, “This isn’t right,” just like the other customers? Instead, employees stuck to their by-the-book decision, and the situation continued to escalate.

Obviously, I don’t know exactly what was going through those employees’ heads, and I should state that I’m not an expert on aviation regulation and protocols. And I’m not necessarily commenting on the actions of Chicago Aviation Security Officers—that seemed extreme. But when looking at this strictly from the perspective of the United employees, I wonder what they could’ve done differently—or even what I would have done in the same situation. And I keep coming back to the notion of employee empowerment.

Maybe the employees did see that something needed to be done, but felt they couldn’t speak up. Or maybe they believed they were doing everything right, because they were following the letter of the law—“The rules say we can bump passengers, so we’re going to do it.” Or possibly, a manager kept insisting from afar that they stick to the plan to get those crew members to St. Louis, even when employees on the scene relayed how bad it was getting. Whatever was motivating the employees to choose this path, it seems that no one felt empowered enough to assess the situation and say, “This isn’t right.”

The airline industry is known for intense competition and constant scrutiny over on-time departures. I’m sure all the major airlines have some internal corporate value saying that the customer comes first, but it’s clear to me that in this situation, the message being reinforced to employees was to meet departure goals, no matter what the cost. And what a cost it turned out to be.

It all underscores the importance of creating a culture that empowers your people. Many of the decisions that employees make throughout the day come down to judgment calls—on-the-spot decisions about how to handle a unique situation. This is especially true for decisions related to customer interactions. If a company empowers its people to use their best judgment in line with established values, employees can trust their instincts and do what feels right in the moment, knowing that they will be backed up by management for carrying out that decision. So while it’s essential that employees are properly trained on operating procedures—and even how to recognize and diffuse a situation—it’s just as important that they are empowered to make the call that feels right when the situation escalates.

I bet executives at United Airlines wish someone on their team had said, “You know what, it’s not worth it, we’ll put this crew on the next flight and take the hit to our on-time departure numbers.” But if a company fails to create a culture where its people feel empowered to make those types of hard decisions in the moment, they’re left with employees who follow procedure…and possibly make a huge mess in the process.


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