HR lessons from the United Airlines PR debacle

A passenger was dragged out of an 'overbooked' United Airlines flight on Tuesday, which directly hit the company's shares and reputation. An expert outlines the HR lessons we can learn from the PR disaster.

United Airlines is facing a PR nightmare after video evidence emerged showing a passenger being forcibly removed from an ‘overbooked’ flight. While the debate rages on regarding passenger rights when an airline requests ‘volunteers’ to give up their seats, are there lessons that HR can learn from the incident?

In an internal email to staff, United CEO Oscar Munoz initially defended employees’ conduct, saying the passenger in question had been “disruptive and belligerent” and praising staff for going “above and beyond”. Following outcry, Munoz has since backtracked and said the passenger was not at fault, telling ABC News: “He can’t be. He was a paying passenger sitting on our seat in our aircraft and no one should be treated that way. Period.”

But has the damage already been done? Should companies back their employees unconditionally, regardless of the consequences, or do they need to be more aware?

Pam Rogerson is HR Director for the ELAS Group. She says: “There is a lot to be said for supporting your employees when you TRULY believe they have been subjected to unacceptable behaviour. Just as employers are vicariously liable for the actions of their employees, companies are also at risk of claims from their employees in the event they are injured physically or emotionally during the course of their duties. This is maybe more apparent if, for example, you are working in front line services – police, fire, ambulance or hospitals. We have all heard accounts where nurses have been subjected to abusive behaviour and this is clearly not acceptable.

“In this case United CEO Oscar Munoz made an initial statement that the passenger had been ‘disruptive and belligerent’. In this age of heightened security, one could be forgiven for supporting staff if you truly believe that they were under threat however this is clearly not the case here, and the CEO deserves a Golden Raspberry for making such a fundamental error.

“He has failed to investigate and confirm the facts of the case before committing himself, and the company, to this course of action. Munoz then went on to say that employees ‘followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this’ – as anyone who has seen the video can attest, clearly they need to change their procedures.

“It’s critical from an HR perspective to ensure that the investigatory process is followed to the letter whenever any kind of incident occurs, especially one as high profile as this. In these days of smart phones and social media anyone can become a so-called citizen journalist and, whereas previously companies might have been able to keep more control over coverage following an incident, it’s now more important than ever to ensure you establish all the facts before speaking publically. While no company wants to throw their employees under the proverbial bus, sometimes it is better to acknowledge mistakes, apologise and fix the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

“Internal emails are private business documents and, as such, should be classed as private and confidential. As we’ve seen before internal documents do get leaked and once the cat is out of the bag there is no way of putting it back in. Before putting anything in writing, companies should look at how it could be perceived should a leak occur. You will be liable from public opinion for what you write so, if in any doubt, don’t write it in the first place. In my opinion United could not have handled this incident any worse, and they will struggle to come back from the reputational fallout.”

Since the incident and his initial defiance, Munoz issued an apology for the “truly horrific event”. The 69-year-old passenger in question, Dr David Dao, was left bloody after being dragged out of the plane, and is currently in hospital for his injuries. The disastrous PR effect of the incident hit almost immediately as shares in the airline’s parent company United Continental Holdings fell 4 per cent early on Tuesday. Whether or not Munoz apology was primarily to allay shareholder fears, he assures the public that United Airlines will communicate the results of its review by 30 April, saying “I promise you we will do better.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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