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Workplace Today: Troubled skies: Airlines may have important HR issues to resolve

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Workplace Today

The airline industry has suffered a spate of negative issues lately, notably the two passenger confrontations on United and American Airlines flights, followed by a seemingly sharp increase of customer complaints against other airlines for similarly poor experiences. While this resulted in a public relations nightmare for those organizations, it may likely point to a deeper, underlying HR issue. What is going on in companies where employees go to extreme measures to enforce company rules and in the process, mishandle customers?

There could be several reasons and, no doubt, there’s always the outliers, from the otherwise good employee who just has a one-off, really bad day, to one with a possible mental health issue or simply a random employee who decides this will be their ultimate form of resignation. But more often, poor behaviour can be indicative of a dysfunctional culture within the organization.

Corporate culture is usually established at the top, and the responsibility lies with senior leaders to ensure that any problems are quickly addressed and resolved. But often CEOs may be so removed from the day-to-day environment, and they may not have the particular skill set personally – or on the board – to anticipate or identify HR issues, let alone how to solve them. Blame is often placed elsewhere and trickles down, which only reinforces a systemic culture problem. Too many policies, procedures or useless evaluations, a lack of candid communication and transparency, or not listening to employee feedback are only some things that can create toxic environments. When it comes to understanding whether you may have HR issues that need to be addressed, consider the following:


Classic conditioning. We repeat the behaviours for which we are rewarded. Whether implicit or explicit, if the corporate culture prizes rules and adherence to them, and those employees who enforce the rules are generally rewarded, then they will more readily apply this to others as well. Rigid rules result in a lack of autonomy and ability to think flexibly. On the other hand, if the culture promotes an inclusive and shared vision of success where employees are valued, they will be more motivated to go the extra mile to ensure happy customers.

Doing unto others. Conversely, if employees are routinely treated harshly or feel that supervisors don’t care about them, most often their resentment may cause them to treat coworkers or customers in the same manner. A focus on rules, process and efficiency that is prioritized above employee and customer wellbeing can result a toxic corporate culture. Managers who focus on supervising rather than coaching or mentoring, and leave little or no room for feedback and discussion, will not foster positive relationships with their staff. Nor do they set a good example for the employee.


Don’t pay lip service. Especially in hospitality, good customer service needs to be seen as a clear priority by the executive team, not just something that’s paid lip service. If you want to ensure your employees provide good customer service, involve them in defining what those service standards are. They are the ones closest to the front line and in the best position to know what matters to your customers and what their pain points are. Through their direct experience, the may know how to best address your customers concerns. Invite them to share their learnings with others on the team.

Prioritize training. Don’t just set an expectation of excellence without supporting it. Ongoing training and support of employees on how to appropriately handle frustrated customers and diffuse charged situations is important. As with anything, practice makes perfect. Establish a regular training program with role-playing, brainstorming, and case studies, so that these skills are constantly honed and updated. A company-wide email reminding employees of the customer service standards doesn’t cut it. Set a standard internally for how mistakes are handled by providing supportive, calm assistance. Berating or throwing an employee under the bus to please a customer will not likely yield a positive result – or display problem solving best practice.

Pay attention. To how your employees are behaving. We live in a world of increased demand, stress and expectation, with an inverse proportion of time, patience and reward. This paradigm is perhaps felt most by those in customer-facing roles, who may deal with hundreds or even thousands of different people, and personalities, each day. Check in with them regularly and when they start showing signs of stress, pull them off the front line and let them diffuse their stress with non-customer facing tasks.

As with anything, you can’t get to the heart of a problem and fix it without talking about it and addressing it truthfully. Culture problems can usually be resolved when management has the courage to face issues openly and provide the right tools, and environment, that will foster real and positive change.