Let the police take care of customer service @united

Let the police take care of customer service @united

The story in a nutshell: Passengers are sitting on the plane. Turns out the flight is overbooked, somebody must give up his seat. The airline picks one randomly. The passenger doesn’t give up his seat. Three police officers come and drag him off the plane, to the horror of his fellow passengers. The news, together with a video is spreading. Oscar Munoz, the CEO of the airline, issues a standard apology on twitter.

Our take:

It almost doesn’t matter which airline it is. We won’t analyze the obvious here; we’re interested in the phenomenon of what happens when people get subordinated to processes and not the other way around.

This event is symbolic on several levels:

  • a mechanical organization is always dumb
  • a mechanical organization is insensitive to the truth; once the CEO or HR or any line manager talks about values, they are in self-contradiction: you can’t talk about values to people who must serve processes
  • people become (often ill-willed) bureaucrats in mechanical organizations: if we try to imagine the most mechanical organization that still employs people, it would be bureaucracies (only a machine is more mechanical than bureaucracies).

Interesting questions to consider:

  • who does the police report to?
  • why did the officers not serve and protect? Against what? Against injustice of course. Is the police also becoming a mere bureaucracy?
  • what’s the right thing to do as PEOPLE in this situation? I think it would be for all of them to leave the plane. However: to do the right thing is simply unimaginable with consumers (not to be confused with people)

We aware that there are two sides to every story. Maybe the passenger really was impossible to handle, maybe not; interestingly this is not really relevant.

Let us know what you think! How would you have handled it?


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Laszlo Kovari is a writer and the founder of Prakhsis, an organizational development company that has been a pioneer in the concept of organic organizations. As a "consigliere" he has worked with founders, managers, CEOs and board members at startups, mid-sized companies and some of the Fortune 500 across North America and Europe. Laszlo is based in Prague, Czech Republic, supporting clients across Europe.

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