United Surrendered its Protocol and Found Agility

HR leaders should play a key role in helping a company become more agile to ensure its employees’ needs are met–which can have an impact on its outward-facing operations and, ultimately, the bottom line.

That was the consensus at the first general session of the world’s largest HR conference, the 70th annual Society for Human Resource Management conference, being held through June 20 in Chicago. The Monday morning event featured remarks by SHRM board president Coretha M. Rushing and United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, both of whom agreed that one of the biggest challenges facing HR leaders–which, they said, can also be seen as an opportunity–is the rapid melding of the customer and employee experience.

This issue is particularly salient at United. Last spring, United representatives forcibly removed a 69-year-old passenger–an incident that was caught on camera and went viral.

Munoz told the SHRM audience that the issue, in part, stemmed from the fact that the company was too strictly relying on protocol, losing sight of the need for flexibility.

“We had let our rules, procedures and policies get in the way of employees who knew the right thing to do; we didn’t let them do it,” Munoz said. “At the end of each rule is a human being, a customer who may just have a simple question, a request and the answer can’t always be no. So we had to ratchet back on that.”

That involved developing a set of defined values–meant to function as priorities to guide employee actions–United now calls its “Core Four.” Safety is first, followed by caring, dependability and efficiency. Placing “caring” above other goals, Munoz said, can allow, for example, gate agents to delay closing the gate door a minute or two if they see a family running through the terminal to make their flight.

Rushing also used a flight example to highlight the need for organizational agility, noting that some passengers “roll with” changes to flight schedules while others let any disruptions throw an entire trip off course. Leadership, especially HR, she said, needs to fall into the first camp in order to thrive.

“Unexpected changes affect us every single day and they’re all very different, just like the people we serve. To face transformation, we need to be tolerant. We have to build tolerance for uncertainty and change,” Rushing said.

While HR professionals should embrace change, they need to do so in a way that centers employee voices, both speakers agreed.

United failed to do so when it rolled out its much-criticized bonus “lottery” system earlier this year, Munoz said. He said the approach was meant as a way to “spice up” United’s bonus program, but the employee outcry over the initiative demonstrated the company didn’t “listen effectively.”

The feedback, Munoz said, highlighted a fundamental aspect of the organizational culture that the initiative’s architects neglected to recognize: The airline succeeds primarily because of the teamwork of its employees, who want to be recognized for their collaboration, and not their individual contributions.

Actively listening to employees, Rushing added, is integral to managing change. HR leaders should be engaging one on one with employees, she said, to keep their fingers on the pulse of the organization and to identify any pain points. As disruptions like the rise of AI, the momentum of the #MeToo movement and increased attention on workplace discrimination continue, she said, this idea will become increasingly central to the HR function.

“[HR leaders] have to get out of their seats and walk around,” she said. “Make time for personal relationships, and those should feel real, genuine and authentic.”

That idea also surfaced when SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor asked for Munoz’s central piece of advice for HR leaders.

“Empathy,” he said. “In any communication, don’t forget the human element. Engaging people is the way to do that; it’s not what you do, but how.”

HR has an unprecedented ability in today’s world to lead on this and other issues, the speakers said. Munoz noted his own views on the importance of the HR function has shifted in recent years. He said he now doesn’t think of United’s HR leaders as belonging to a particular unit but rather as key contributors to the senior leadership team.

At Sunday’s opening session, which featured remarks by former Fla. Gov. Jeb Bush, Taylor emphasized the strides most companies have made in how they involve, and often center, HR leaders in business operations.

“There literally has never been a better moment to be in the people business. I remember the times we were dying to be recognized, when we wanted a seat at the table and were trying to prove our value. Those days are long gone,” he said. “I can’t find a CEO who is not talking–talking a lot–about HR and people. They finally get it: People matter.”

To sustain that seat at the table, Rushing said, HR leaders of today need to be strategically thinking about tomorrow.

“No one knows what work will look like in 20 years, so we have to open our minds, and use that space to dream about our future, what you want it to be and what you want your job to be,” she said. “Now is the time to test the limits, when everything is fluid, moving and transforming.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected]