I realize you’ve had a difficult week, and I hate to pile on, but I must.
I believe you’re one of the good CEOs out there. You’re also one of our few diverse CEOs, the first in your Mexican-American family to graduate from college. Employees like you, with a jaw-dropping 97% approval rating on Glassdoor. And there are solid reasons why PR Week awarded you “Communicator of the Year” just last month.
But, man, what happened this week? Who was giving you communications advice? Everything I read before this crisis said you were a good guy. So I hope you don’t mind a few more bits of advice on your employee communications – particularly that letter you sent to employees:
You forgot a cardinal rule of internal communications – anything internal should be written as if it were to be sent externally. I doubt you would have sat in a media interview and called a paying customer, who was literally dragged off your plane, “belligerent.” So don’t do it in your letter to employees. It’s embarrassing.
You ignored your values. At some point, your leadership, HR and maybe even some employees helped you craft your Customer Commitment. These are painful processes, often taking months to land on the final language. But during this crisis – and probably long before – your customer commitment gathered dust on a shelf. The third sentence of your commitment states, “Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers.” I suspect that if you had been regularly communicating this to your employees, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
You apologized to your customers. Now you owe one to your employees. I realize you feel beat up this week. But you make more than $6 million in salary; your other 87,000 employees don’t. I’m sure the large percentage of United employees were feeling “shame” days before you said it in your ABC news interview. You weren’t the only one feeling the pressure. This week, your employees were pummeled during mini-press conferences with friends and family, defending you and their company. You are paid to take the heat. They are not.
All the prep you received to respond to media requests should have been given to employees, too. Guess what? When it comes to a crisis, your employees are more trusted than you. So once you apologized, you should have equipped them to respond. Within 24 hours of this crisis, employees should have been given a non-defensive response – and an apology – that they could echo.
You have been credited once with a turnaround, and now you must do it again. I hope that you – and other leaders – will use this as a lesson. But my fear is that crises often bring out the worst in a company’s internal communications.
Your lawyers are going to be whispering in your ear – especially when it comes to how you talk to your employees. Please don’t listen to your attorneys. Instead, dust off your customer commitment and ensure that every system and process supports it. And then take the time to genuinely listen and talk to your employees before they walk out the door. Your future – and the future of United – depends on them.