The United Airlines Incident Is The Culmination Of Years Of Process Over People

Senior Editor
04.14.17 18 Comments

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How often have you had this experience: you have some issue with your phone or cable service that necessitates a phone call, and when you finally get a company representative on the line, almost before you can finish explaining the problem, the representative says something like “I’m sorry you are experiencing an outage, Mr. ____, I know how frustrating it can be to experience a problem with your service. I’d just like to take this time to reassure you that I will indeed do everything I can to help you fix this problem. Now, can I verify your desert island discs and mother’s maiden name?”

I suppose it’d be a nice sentiment if we hadn’t all heard the same one verbatim a thousand times before, and it wasn’t being read back to us with all the vocal inflection of a hostage reading a kidnapper’s manifesto. It’s meant to express empathy but does the opposite, sounding rote and automated, like a robot trying to learn to feel. It used to be I’d only hear spiels like this with massive, known-evil entities like Comcast or AT&T, but the phenomenon seems to be spreading. More and more it seems like this is just the way we train all employees — don’t think, just follow the script.

Just imagine the thought process that must’ve gone into creating such a script. Clearly, these companies were getting so many irate phone calls from their customers that they had to try to implement something to fix it. Tellingly, their solution wasn’t to hire more competent employees or, God forbid, improve their actual product. Instead, they almost certainly spent the money on some expensive management consultant, whose solution was simply to write them a new script. “I see the problem, you forgot to install the empathy chip! Here, let me just seat dongle A17 in rack slot GX-23… There. Now the customer anger should be neutralized.”

It’s this process of incremental dehumanization through adherence to process. We’ve been gradually conditioned to treat lower-level employees as disposable cogs and to expect less and less from them. It’s much easier (and more scalable!) to just tweak a script everyone follows rather than, you know, hire kinder, smarter people with common sense and give them the power to solve problems as they arise. Dr. David Dao getting dragged off of a United flight this week seems like a natural culmination of this kind of thinking, a complete breakdown in humanity seemingly caused by an inability to deviate from protocol.

United had overbooked the flight, (which is common practice to keep from throwing away money on empty seats, since flights generally have a few cancellations), but needed to get four employees from Chicago to Louisville. They offered $400 vouchers for travelers willing to take a later flight, also common practice. They received no takers, but inexplicably let the passengers board anyway. While the passengers were seated for takeoff, they continued upping the voucher amounts, to $800, then to $1,000. Still no takers. By the way, you know airports have become barely tolerable when people would turn down a thousand dollars rather than spend a few more hours there. Anyway, at that point, the airline started choosing people at random (it still won’t say exactly how, but here are some hints). Three of those chosen left begrudgingly and one, now a household name (with all the trappings that come with that), refused.

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