By listening to its employees, United is creating a better airline
Photography United Airlines Creative Services
FOR DONNA TOWLE, United’s Vice President for HR-Employee Relations, success in business boils down to three simple concepts: trust, pride and camaraderie. If you make these your overarching goals for how coworkers relate to one another, Towle says, great customer service falls into place.
“Employees need to feel they’re part of the process, and they need to be part of the process,” Towle says. “To make this happen, we need to listen to them. Companies that listen to their coworkers fare well in the long run and are great places to work. If you provide a good employee experience, your coworkers will in turn provide great customer service— that’s the lynchpin of success in any service-oriented business.”
Towle joined Continental 26 years ago and can remember a time when things weren’t going too well.
“Fifteen years ago, Continental was a terrible place to work, and our employees had little pride in their jobs or in the carrier,” Towle says. “Continental had a bad reputation, largely based on how our coworkers delivered the product and service. Back then, it felt like managers never listened to our frontline employees.”
All of that changed when Gordon Bethune became CEO of Continental. Jeff Smisek, now United’s CEO, was part of the senior leadership team brought in to turn around the company. He and other senior leaders set about overhauling the lines of communication between management and the coworkers on the front lines.
Towle remembers that “one of the first things Gordon said was, ‘You gotta listen to the frontline employees.’ And so we did, and the employees told us what customers needed, and what tools our coworkers needed to do their jobs. At the time we had the worst employee attendance in the industry. People simply didn’t want to come to work.”
So the team decided to figure out why attendance was so low. They discovered that there was a disconnect between management and the front lines. “We immediately started a dialogue with the employees, and it paid off right away,” says Towle.
With the new United, CEO Smisek, Towle and the entire United leadership team are committed to keeping lines of communication open. It begins with expanding the organization’s focus. “All companies use metrics and analyses to measure and manage what gets done,” Towle says, “and that’s obviously important. But the truly successful companies also focus on how things get done. In the merger, we want to place as much emphasis on the how as on the what.”
To do this, Towle and the HR team have developed an innovative plan to create a better workplace for United’s coworkers. It begins with the open lines of communication. Working with Smisek, she created an Employee Advisory Group composed of 24 frontline employees from across all departments of the combined company (half from United, half from Continental). As the leaders organize and execute the integration of the two airlines, they are consulting with the employee advisory group to make sure the airline is listening to the experts—the frontline employees.
“We can’t make this great merger successful without our coworkers,” Towle says. “If they aren’t engaged in and supportive of the process, we won’t get the benefits we all want to achieve.”
Beyond the advisory group, Towle is dispatching teams to act as impartial liaisons between the leadership and frontline coworkers, the “boots on the ground.”
“Our coworkers need to have someone in management they can speak to who is neutral and unbiased,” Towle says. “We’re going to provide venues where employees can feel comfortable sharing ideas and getting feedback from leadership.”
The goal, Towle says, is to make coworkers confident that they can ask any question of management and get a straight answer; that management delivers on promises; shows appreciation for good work and for extra effort; seeks and responds to suggestions and ideas; and shows interest in coworkers as human beings, not just employees.
“At the end of the day,” Towle says, “we want our coworkers to be proud to tell others that they work at the new United. We want this to be a great place to work.”
And it’s not just coworkers who can reap the rewards of a great place to work. These initiatives have a great payoff for the customer, who in turn will receive great service and be able to ask any question and get a straight answer from a United representative, who will appreciate the customer’s business and respond appropriately to the customer’s suggestions and ideas.