There was a news story this week about an army ranger who had a difficult experience on a US Airways flight. He took his seat in coach, and asked the flight attendant if she would hang up his military jacket which was endowed with many medals. She refused, citing company policy that that service was for first class customers only. Several people in first class asked the flight attendant to hang the jacket on behalf of the army ranger, but she still refused. They even offered to trade seats with the Army Ranger, which was also met with refusal.
US Airways has apologized for the incident with the following tweet: “We hold all those serving our country in the highest regard and apologize for any offense caused. We are reviewing the incident internally.”
First, let me start by thanking this particular Army Ranger and all those who have served our country. The sacrifices you and your families have made are truly appreciated. The freedoms we experience on a daily basis are ours because of those who have actively fought to preserve those freedoms.
Second, thank you to those on the flight who saw the situation and tried to make it right. Personally, I believe that we should all have enough courage to stand and challenge injustice– whether it’s poor treatment of service members or school bullying. If we don’t communicate that something is wrong or unacceptable, those committing these acts will continue to do so. Our actions and our voices are the strongest tools that we have to “make it right”.
Third, I want to focus on what really happened with this flight attendant and her actions. Unfortunately, this flight attendant WAS well-trained. In fact, she was so well-trained that she could quote US Airways’ policies exactly.
It’s a shame that someone can be so well-trained on the rules and regulations that they are unable to make a judgment call in the unique situations that “the book” doesn’t prepare them for. There is obviously a risk involved with departing from protocol in this security-heavy industry, but some degree of autonomy and flexibility for the employee is required to avoid ridiculous situations like this one.
When I am on a flight I want to know that my flight attendant is well-qualified in case of any type of emergency. Those skill sets go well beyond her ability to deliver a drink, offer peanuts, and even hang up a jacket. The airlines have asked flight attendants to be superstars. They manage the security regime, ensure customer comfort, and help parents handle screaming toddlers. It is a job that is challenging, under-appreciated and over-glamourized.
Training for such a complex, multi-faceted, and public role needs to go beyond the rule book. These people must be empowered to be flexible when appropriate. Employees need to know what they can be flexible about and what is simply non-negotiable. And they need to feel secure in their liberty so that a variation from the script will not result in negative repercussions on their employment.
Defining flexibility in business can be a little like nailing Jell-O to a tree. We are attempting to create rules and boundaries to describe how not to be trapped by too many rules and boundaries. It may sound paradoxical, but it is absolutely pivotal to the long-term success of any business.
It would be far better to allow employees the flexibility to deviate from the script when appropriate. Doing so will help the employee feel more like a person and less like a replaceable gear in an unfeeling system. This will help each customer feel like they were actually listened to and that the airline really cared about them as a person.
I am not suggesting anarchy. I am not suggesting that airlines stop training employees on exactly how to do their jobs. I am not even suggesting a decrease in employee accountability. Giving employees the training and information they need to do their jobs well is the very foundation of flexibility. By investing in teaching employees how their job relates to other roles and the goals of the business, they will be equipped to be flexible in executing their jobs to their fullest potential.
Any business will eventually run itself into the ground trying to plan for every possible contingency. It’s simply impossible. And if you succeeded, you would no longer have employees, but robots – unfeeling, automated, precise machines that would undoubtedly leave your customers feeling unknown, uncared-for, and unseen. These customers tend to become un-customers.
Flexibility is about empowerment and feeling safe within the empowerment. Training employees to be empowered benefits the airline (with loyal customers and positive social media stories), the employees (how much better does it feel to say “yes” than “no” to an enquiring customer), and of course the customers themselves – who want to feel good about their experience in being your customer.
Empowered employees are the key to a successful business. And the key to simply doing the right thing.
You can read the original story here: http://abcnews.go.com/US/airline-apologizes-flight-attendants-treatment-soldier/story?id=26157977