Friday, November 20

Frustrating Employees: American Airlines

It only took an hour for American Airlines to find and terminate Mr. X, a UX user experience architect working for the company, after he responded to a Web site critique offered up by Dustin Curtis, a designer who creates user interfaces and experiences.

"The problem with the design of, however, lies less in our competency (or lack thereof, as you pointed out in your post) and more with the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines." — Mr. X

In reading through more than 150 comments left on Curtis' post, I couldn't help but wonder about the confusion. Some people said the firing was warranted. Others said it was another example of the company's incompetence. Some said that it was somehow Curtis' fault. Very few seemed to find the truth. What's that?

Two wrongs don't make a right, they make a mess.

1. We can remove Curtis from the equation. He didn't do anything wrong in offering a public pitch. In a world where many people with experience and expertise can become a content publisher, companies and their employees have to expect and accept both praise and criticism. The only question: How will the company choose to respond or react to the communication?

If any company operating in the 21st century hasn't answered this question by now, they are inviting, even encouraging, crisis.

2. It is always unfortunate when someone is terminated over carelessness because they care. However, Mr. X clearly violated one of the most basic ethical tenants. Aside from American Airlines' non-disclosure agreement, it is generally understood that communicators protect confidential information and, at the same time, comply with all legal requirements for the disclosure of information affecting the welfare of others.

If Mr. X truly cared about the company, his response to Curtis would have been better sent to his supervisor to affect change.

3. Appreciating that there may be other grounds for termination that we may be not aware of, American Airlines demonstrates they clearly have an international communication problem. When employees feel more comfortable confiding about their experience to external sources of information over internal channels because they feel powerless to be the catalyst for positive change, then that is a problem. And now, it's a public problem with a greater consequence than any breach of non-disclosure.

American Airlines has to know it has flaws in its communication strategy given that everyone else does. A warning might have been enough.

Companies need to develop clear and concise response guidelines.

Without a more comprehensive understanding of American Airlines internal communication components, there isn't much we can do. However, it does seem clear that they need to develop clear and concise online response guidelines. Here are a few:

• Define who will respond and under what circumstances.
• Respond in a timely manner when the topic is still hot.
• Read the greater body of ongoing work to ensure you understand it.
• Recognize who the person, people, or media might be before you respond.
• Remain positive, reasoned, and focus on clarifications (unless your brand is satirical).
• Stay focused on the topic if you hope to maintain credibility, authenticity, and transparency.
• Recognize that engagement is a limited commitment, which may require a follow-up response.

Imagine how even a handful of points might have made a difference at American Airlines. Mr. X would have been allowed to respond as himself or known to forward any notes along to a supervisor. The authorized representative could have responded, possibly generating goodwill for American Airlines. Or maybe not, since the original post was obviously a public pitch.

The psychology of criticism and the art of the pause.

There isn't a tremendous body of worthwhile research revolving around the study of criticism and how people respond to it. Most people simply respond to it badly. Generally, it is because they tend to react as opposed to respond, which is why media relations training has a tendency to focus on the trappings of pointed questions.

Professionally, I try to teach people to accept criticism, provided it isn't cynicism. As I've proposed before, critics strive to be open, objective, and offer suggestions for improvement or make an effort to understand various points of view. Cynics are generally closed, biased, and reject that any merit exists or tend to promote their point of view while dismissing the validity of any other.

As a general rule of thumb, people are almost always better served by pausing anytime they feel an immediate emotional response to any particular comment. The pause allows us to process the information and ascertain intent.

Teachers, for example, are paid to provide constructive criticism. Managers are charged with evaluating performance. And the best reporters always ask tough questions to find the truth. Some bloggers too, employ criticism as a means of driving conversations forward.

In all of these cases, the intent is grounded in compassion for education, employee, public welfare, or special interest. We ought not to shy away from it, but embrace it. You don't have to accept every idea as valid, but critics often lend a few gems.


Karthik on 11/20/09, 7:58 PM said...

Very interesting premise. I had written about the same topic and actually concluded that Mr. X gets a promotion! Of course, my angle was quite different, within the same topic.

Rich on 11/29/09, 10:29 AM said...


I enjoyed your angle. There are plenty of people who would agree with it.

Yes, companies need champions. However, champions tend to affect change from within rather than commiserate with outside parties as an anonymous commenters. Ergo, his thinking might be right, but his method is less than admirable.

All my best,

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