There is no need to recap United Airlines disastrous ejection of a passenger from a flight. The only person who hasn’t heard about it yet probably lives alone in a cave somewhere and refers to planes as “Magical Silver Sky Birds.”
But, the fall out continues and on April 27, 2017 United issued a statement, echoed in newspaper ads and emails to customers, about the results of its assessment of all that went wrong and what the company would do going forward.
I’ve been following the incident both as a very, very regular flier – I have flown over 1.7 million miles on United – and as a member of the compliance and ethics community.
In the statement released by United CEO Oscar Munoz, one sentence stands out beyond the others: “Our review shows that many things went wrong that day, but the headline is clear: our policies got in the way of our values and procedures interfered in doing what’s right.”
There’s a good summary, to my mind, of what went wrong. It’s also very good counsel to every organization. If a policy or procedure doesn’t align with your values, there’s a potential problem.
It’s an easy point to forget. An incident occurs and someone says we need a policy to prevent it. One gets written, and people think the problem is solved. But, calmer heads with a broader vision need to look to see how the new policy interacts both with the company’s other policies, as well as the company’s own values. Otherwise there is the risk of the disaster United faced, or just creating dissonance within the workforce: “They say we believe in this value, but this policy says something else altogether. Clearly they don’t believe that values stuff.”
United’s response also is an important reminder of the need to make compliance with policies and procedures not some formal, externally imposed rule book but an integral part of how we as an organization do business. Yes, there are some things you will need to look up in the manual to find out what you’re supposed to do in a given situation. But, if those rules are consistent with the company’s approach to business, they seem a little less externally-imposed, a little less “what they say we should do” and a little more consistent with the employee’s own vision of what the company expects.
Finally, there is a lesson for those who talk about “going beyond compliance to ethics.” Oscar Munoz’s statement shows that the two are intertwined. Good rules usually have strong ethical values behind them and are consistent with good ethics.
There’s no need to bump compliance for ethics or ethics for compliance. Let’s just buckle up together and have a safe flight.
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