It happened again to another airline — a public relations nightmare. An American Airline worker, according to a traveler turned videographer, violently grabbed a stroller away from a woman traveling with children. Fellow passengers claimed the action almost hurt a baby. The mother began sobbing. A fellow passenger became angry, threatening the flight attendant. The flight attendant yelled back.
As a mother and communications professional, my heart goes out to everyone — to the inconsolable mother and her children, to the man who rushed to her defense, to the guy’s wife begging her angry husband not to start a fight, the pilot who looks disturbed and annoyed and the flight attendants — even the one that nearly hurt a child. My heart even goes out to the PR people who have to handle this, including the CEO who saw the video and no doubt wondered, “What the heck happened?!”
Why do I have empathy for even the airline attendant?
Travel these days is awful and fraught with emotion. Passengers are struggling to be on time — get home to missed family, to work, to funeral services and much more. On top of that, airfare isn’t cheap and spending a considerable amount of money on something makes being on time and getting good service even more important.
These emotions and demands are aimed not at the people who set prices and decide when planes fly, but at the people who interact with customers — the airlines front line, from flight attendants to pilots. On top of trying to get planes in the air safely and on time, they need to address the particular needs of everyone on the airplane — moms traveling alone with kids, people who are afraid to fly, business passengers late to important meetings, etc. That’s a lot to expect, and it’s even harder to deliver every single day, multiple times per day.
Don’t just vow better customer service, promise better treatment of employees
Companies react, like United Airlines, by beefing up their customer service. That’s great and important. But customer service starts and ends with employees. They’re bringing your brand to life every day. They’re boosting or killing your organization’s reputation.
For your employees to treat customers better, they need to be treated better. Putting people back into the equation means you need to start demonstrating you care about employees.
How to demonstrate you care about employees
1. Make caring a revered value
If your company is all about people (like healthcare and retail) or says that customer service sets them apart, make “caring about people” the first value.
- Reward people for caring for others — that means monetary and nonmonetary recognition.
- Include how they care about others in their performance reviews.
- Promote employees and hire based on this trait.
- Call out examples in your company news.
- Conduct brand training. People should understand what “caring about people” means at your organization.
- Ensure your physical and mental wellness plans are adequate. Ask employees for feedback yearly to make changes to those plans.
- Give time for company-sponsored volunteering and giving. Caring about people means you care about the community, too.
- Actively listen to employees, often.
- Train managers, including what caring about people means at your company.
2. Give time-outs
- Ensure employees have time off for vacations and illnesses as a starting point. Create people-first policies for the tough issues employees face, too.
- Let people work from home when possible.
- Give time off on the spot when employees need it. In the American Airlines case, someone should’ve told the flight attendant (who’s now grounded) to take a few minutes or the day if needed to collect himself.
- Let employees share vacation pictures and travel advice on your company intranet. It shows you care how people use their time off. Some organizations penalize employees by a “use it or lose it” policy. Instead of employees cheerfully using their vacation, they’re unhappy that the policy has been foist on them.
3. Trust employees
- Enable employees to make important decisions without second guessing them. In United Airlines’ case, if employees felt empowered to offer more money on an overbooked flight, it could’ve saved them a lot of grief.
- Catch employees doing the right thing and reward them. Peer-to-peer recognition is a great way to recognize employees who are empowered and engaged, making the right decisions. Customers can get in on the act and reward employees, too! I’ve given an award at Portland’s (PDX) Airport to a woman who went out of her way for me, for example. I even felt good doing it.
- Avoid publicly shaming employees, but welcome issues and their solutions. These can even be added to your company news, become brand stories and divulged at all-company meetings.
4. Encourage physical and mental wellness
- Have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and encourage employees to use it.
- Encourage employees to sign up for physical events that are for good causes, such as Race for the Cure. Sponsor employees through your corporate giving.
- Recognize employees who run, walk, climb, swim and more in these events on your company intranet.
- Give gym discounts.
- Find innovative ways to embrace exercise and work. I had a manager who loved when we went to the downstairs gym with her while she biked. Another manager loved walking while discussing issues or ideas. You can get creative and still get work done.
- Have healthy snacks.
- Train employees and give advice for using Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), short-term disability and long-term disability. I remember when having my first child, an HR representative walk me through options — including using vacation and sick — was valuable.
When employees feel cared about, trusted and are physically and mentally well — they’re engaged and empowered. Engaged and empowered employees are more likely to treat customers well, be safer and produce better quality, too.