United Airlines Has Fake Values

April 14, 2017, 4:03 PM UTC

By now, everyone knows what United Airlines did this week. But most people don’t know why. Oh sure, there’s been a lot of talk on algorithms and over-booking, but the real reason is plain and simple. United’s CEO Oscar Munoz lives in values fantasyland.

United clearly has a culture that fails to treat customers with care or this incident could never have happened. But wait – on its website, United claims one of its core values is “warm and welcoming.” And another is that they, “make decisions with facts and empathy.” Huh???

This is just another example of a company that has what I call “bumper sticker” values. “Bumper sticker” values look good in an annual report and make the CEO feel warm and fuzzy, but do little for its customers and the rest of society. United isn’t alone. Wells Fargo is another example. They claim they “do what’s right for the customer,” yet in actual practice the bank had been creating millions of unauthorized bank and credit accounts without their customers knowing it since 2002. Uber claims it is an inclusive company – yet it has a toxic culture.

All too often, CEOs are unaware of the disconnect between the values they list publicly and the values that exist inside their offices until a crisis occurs, at which point it feels too late. The CEO is either put in a position to publicly apologize, which customers may interpret as forced and insincere (as we saw on Wednesday with United’s Munoz and last month with Uber’s Travis Kalanick following harassment claims) or the CEO is forced to resign, as Wells Fargo’s John Stumpf did last October following its fake accounts scandal.

United’s Munoz has been criticized for initially defending his employees and blaming the passenger. He eventually realized that was wrong, but his first response signaled he blindly drank the Kool-Aid and believed the company’s surface values.

It’s time for CEOs everywhere to reevaluate their company’s values. First off, avoid asking human resource people to define what they are. Rather, ask employees via an anonymous survey, since they can offer a more intimate glimpse of the everyday operations of the company. Here is more on what executives should and shouldn’t do:

DO a reality check.

Does your company have the “right” values? By that I mean values that serve your employees, customers, community, and shareholders equally. Values that form what I call a “culture by design, not default.” If not, it’s time to change them.

DON’T assume you have the “right” values (you may, but I doubt it).

Start at the top and go layer by layer. Those who don’t believe in, won’t abide by, or demonstrate the values have to go. This sounds simple, but it is not easy. If your top managers ignore the values everyone else will. Take it one step at a time, one manager at a time. Once you start replacing managers that share the same values as your company your organization will begin to behave differently. People will applaud you for doing so.

DO interview potential new employees with values in mind.

Don’t just state the values and ask if they agree. Of course they will agree-they want the job. Ask them what their values are. Ask them what values they would admire in a company. If their values don’t match with your company’s don’t hire them, regardless of how good they are. Otherwise, they will be like an infectious disease on the organization.

Steven L. Blue is the President & CEO of Miller Ingenuity, a Minnesota-based firm that manufactures high-technology safety systems for the railroad industry. He is also author of the book, American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right.

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