Empowerment of employees: how can it save you money? Well…by now, you’ve probably seen the disturbing video of Dr. David Dao being dragged off a United Airlines flight to make room for crew members who were traveling to another airport to staff another flight. The incident has created outrage in social media, sparked harsh criticism from traditional news sources, and necessitated United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz to make a public apology.
It also caused a drop in United’s stock, will probably deter passengers from choosing to fly United for some time and will make United vulnerable to litigation from Dr. Dao. Very Yuck!!!
>>>So what can we learn from this unintended lesson in values-based empowerment from United?
I’m reminded of when I checked into a Marriott Hotel late one night. I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving. I asked the clerk (who’s name was Bob) if there was somewhere I could get something to eat in the hotel. He said the kitchen had closed at ten and everything was locked up. Then, noticing my look of disappointment, he excused himself and ten minutes later returned with a tray full of delicious food. When I asked where he got it, he mischievously smiled and said, “I’ve got a key to the kitchen.”
WOW, was I impressed – so much so that I thought I’d tell his boss about this event. Now I realize it’s not the Marriott’s policy for employees to break into the kitchen, much less give away food. So, I realized there was a risk that the fellow would get in trouble – but since he wouldn’t accept a tip, it was all I could think of to reward his behavior.
The next day, when I told the manager about the incident, I made him promise that Bob would not get in trouble. He replied, “Oh no, in fact, he’ll get a written commendation for his going the extra mile for you.”
“But didn’t he break the rules?” I asked. The manager agreed he had, but then said that at Marriott, they expect employees to break the rules if it’s for the right reason, and they exercise good judgment in doing so. For example, if the customer wants to take the TV home, or start a fire in his room, good judgment would demand that the employee says “no.”
So then I asked, “How do you make sure your employees exercise good judgment?” After all, it’s not all that common. He replied that they conduct continual training where, in addition to policy and procedures, they emphasize Marriott’s Core Values, which are:
1. Putting people first.
2. Pursuing excellence.
3. Embracing change.
4. Acting with integrity.
5. Serving our world.
With the clerk the previous evening, putting people first meant my hunger trumped the need to have a secure kitchen. Yay for Bob. And yay for the manager for reinforcing him.
It also empowered Bob to act, having the trust of his manager and the company to go out on a limb and break the rules. The thing about empowerment is that it can’t happen if the employee: 1.) Doesn’t understand the values upon which he can act. (2) Doesn’t have the trust of his manager. (3) Doesn’t know that he won’t get in trouble for acting to solve the problem.
What do values and empowerment have to do with it?
It was obvious from the video that the United staff and the security guards violated that first Marriott core value: putting people first.
They surely didn’t put Dr. Dao first. Giving seats to the crew who needed to get to another city obviously took precedence for them. If it was so important for that crew to get to the other city, they could have:
1. Offered more money to tempt four the other passengers to take another flight. My guess is that if they’d offered $5000, they would have had lots of volunteers.
2. They could have pulled a plane out of the hangar and flown the crew separately to the other city.
3. If they didn’t have a spare plane in the hangar, they could have chartered a private plane to fly the crew separately.
Of course, all three options would have cost a healthy penny. Tempting other customers would have been $5000 X 4 = $20,000. Pulling another plane from the hanger or chartering one would have been expensive too. But, I’m guessing that with United’s stock drop and the bad publicity that’s occurred, United now wishes it would have avoided the problem for a measly $20,000.
So what should United do to make sure this doesn’t happen again? Obviously, training people to use good judgment would help. Judgment base on a healthy set of Marriott-like values. And then, give them the empowerment to make decisions, even $20,000 decisions would be a good start.
Are your employees imbued with the values of your organization, and are they empowered to apply them?