Commentary

United’s Second Apology Still Isn’t Good Enough

Apr 12, 2017

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz got the rarest of gifts on Tuesday: the chance to re-do his anemic Monday apology for his airline’s decision to brutally eject a passenger, physician David Dao, from a flight on Sunday. United has been under fire in the public over the past few days after smartphone videos emerged of Dao being dragged off the plane.

The second apology is better than the first, but it’s still not good enough. A closer look at these apologies yields four leadership lessons that all executives should follow the next time they face a crisis.

Empathy counts

In the first apology, posted on United.com, Munoz issued a four-sentence statement that began with, “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United.” Acknowledging reality is an essential first step in responding effectively to a problem, corporate consultant Ron Karr told me in a phone conversation. Stating the facts up front seems like an obvious thing to do in an apology, but it’s hardly standard practice.

What Munoz wrote, however, betrayed little emotion. Merely mentioning the word “upsetting” doesn’t adequately convey what the viral video revealed.

This is where Munoz’s second apology does a better job: “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment.”

Now we’re talking! “Truly horrific” better captures the reality that people around the world witnessed when they saw and heard Dao being dragged off of the plane, his glasses askew and mouth bloodied, after shrieking in agony.

“Like you,” Munoz adds, “I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight.” With this, Munoz connects on a human level both to Dao and to every United customer who reads the revised apology.

PRWeek recently named Munoz its communicator of the year. It took him two tries in the space of 24 hours, but the United CEO has indeed found a way to communicate his feelings.

Still, in the second apology, Munoz blunders by writing, “No one should ever be mistreated this way.” In what way is it okay to mistreat someone? Munoz should have said, “No one should ever be treated this way.” Words matter, and responsible leaders choose them wisely.

Accountability means taking responsibility

As I explain in my book The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, accountable people take responsibility for their mistakes. Munoz did this in his first communication. “I apologize,” he wrote, using the active voice rather than the all-too-common dodge, “Mistakes were made.”

But then he undercut his accountability by saying that what he was sorry for “having to re-accommodate” Dao and others denied a seat on the plane. “Re-accommodate” sounds more like corporate speak than the way the rest of the world talks. The term is now an international joke, and rightly so. Worse, it suggests Munoz’s main concern is minimizing the company’s legal liability rather than expressing a sincere effort to make amends with Dao.

The second apology is an improvement on this score. “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” Munoz writes. By speaking plainly and keeping his focus squarely on Dao, where it should be, Munoz evinces more accountability than he did in his earlier apology.

Taking responsibility is good. Taking responsibility for the right thing in the right way is even better.

Right the wrong

Elton John sang “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” but as difficult as it may be to take ownership of one’s mistakes, the words “I’m sorry” are just that—mere words. For those words to be meaningful, they have to be backed up by action. This is where the second apology is better yet again.

In the first apology, Munoz wrote, “Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” This sounds like more corporate gobbledygook. What exactly is Munoz going to do?

He is more specific in the second apology, where his plans include “… a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how we partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement. We’ll communicate the results of our review by April 30th.”

Leaving aside the awkward “incentivizing,” this is a vast improvement over the initial plan, because it’s measurable. We can evaluate Munoz’s success or failure, and United’s present and future customers will do just that.

The CEO gets bonus points for saying that the company “will work to make it right.” Yes, they’re just words, but these are especially important ones, because they evince a commitment to ethics.

Look beyond your policies

United has a policy in place about how to handle overbookings, but as Deb Hileman, president and CEO of the Institute for Crisis Management, told me via Skype, “Just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean it’s right to do it.”

This is where the second apology falls short of the mark. How did United come to write its overbooking policy in the first place? Was the company following the industry standard? We need more information.

Even before the recent debacle, United was not among TripAdvisor’s top 10 airlines. In U.K.-based Skytrax’s Top 100 Airlines of 2016, United was number 68. If United wants to lead rather than follow, it has to set the standard for excellence. That means creating an ethical culture that permeates every level of the organization. “From the board on down, there has to be training in how to respond to situations like this with integrity and high character,” says Hileman.

It is in the company’s financial interest to take this seriously. As an April 11 article in Fortune’s headline states, “United Airlines Just Dragged Up to $90 Million Off of Warren Buffett’s Stock Value.” Corporate leaders who find themselves in Munoz’s position would thus do well to respond by asking not only, “What am I legally required to do?” but also, and more importantly, “What’s the right thing for me to do?”

It is not too late for companies to learn a crucial business lesson: Being unethical is uncool—and costly.

Bruce Weinstein is CEO of the Institute for High-Character Leadership.

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