It Took a Terrible Airline to Bring Back the Stupidus Maximus Award Honoring Bad Management

John Hollon Bad HR, John Hollon

Back when I was Editor of a talent management magazine, I gave out an annual Stupidus Maximus Award to honor the “most ignorant, shortsighted and dumb workforce management practice of the year.”

This was a VERY popular feature, and it ended when I left the magazine back in 2010.

But after all the colossal management stupidity over the last year coming out of places like WalMart, Uber, Wells Fargo, and most recently, United Airlines, it made me think that maybe it’s time I started giving it out again.

Why? Because given all the terrible and seemingly never-ending bad management decisions that keep coming out of United, it reminded me that executive stupidity at this level never goes away and is exactly what the Stupidus Maximus Award was created for.

By the way, even though it’s still pretty early, United’s management team is the front-runner so far to nab top Stupidus Maximus “honors” this year.

A litany of bad decisions

Just how bad is United? Let me count the ways:

  1. They set-off a firestorm among their employees this month when the company surprised them with a controversial new lottery-style “bonus” system that would have let a small number of people receive prizes in place of a program that had allowed a large number of eligible employees earn up to $300 per quarter. When United’s workforce reacted badly to the new program, airline President Scott Kirby was forced to backtrack, saying he was “pressing the pause button” on the proposed changes. “Our intention was to introduce a better, more exciting program, but we misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you,” Kirby said.
  2. Last week, they forced a family to put their puppy into an overhead bin on a flight from Houston to New York LaGuardia — an arrangement that a flight attendant had reportedly insisted upon in violation of company policy. The dog died before the flight landed in New York. United says it has apologized to the family, calling it a “tragic accident” for which it takes “full responsibility.”
  3. They mistakenly sent the dog of a family moving from Oregon to Missouri to Japan instead of Kansas City, forcing the airline to temporarily suspend the shipment of all pets as cargo until May 1 so it can review the airline’s pet policies. By the way, United had the most animal deaths of all U.S. airlines in 2017 for the third year in a row according to the latest Department of Transportation data. It had 18 deaths of animals in 2017, a sharp increase in the 9 animal deaths reported the year before.
  4. Last year, United had airport police forcibly drag a 69-year-old doctor off an overbooked Chicago to Louisville flight because he wouldn’t give up his seat because he had an appointment the next morning. Passengers filmed the doctor getting dragged down the aisle, and he lost teeth and suffered a broken nose and a concussion in the process. He has since reached a financial settlement with the airline for his injuries. Of course, it was a PR nightmare for United.
  5. When the doctor getting dragged off the United flight became big news, the first comments from CEO Oscar Munoz were that the passenger was removed because he was “disruptive and belligerent.” He also said that airline employees had “followed established procedures” by asking airport police to remove him. Days later, after complaints about his tone-deaf response, Munoz reversed course and finally said,“I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard. No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

A culture that stinks to high heaven

As Christopher Muther wrote in a Boston Globe article titled Why Are People Still Flying United?, one wonders how United Airlines still has customers at all given how badly they seem to treat everyone  — from employees to customers to traveling pets:

With the tragic death of the puppy, there is another round of apologies, and another threat of legal action, and more cries for boycotts.

Sadly, I don’t need a crystal ball to predict that this will be little more than a hiccup in United’s operations. History shows that any upset will pass. As an animal lover, I am outraged but also defeated. There will be another gaffe and another apology instead of a significant change in the airline’s culture. Each apology is issued as if the airline just experienced its first infraction. Seldom, if ever, do we hear an acknowledgment that there is something intrinsically wrong with the culture at United.”

There IS something “intrinsically wrong” with United’s culture; it stinks to high heaven and has been getting progressively worse for years. I know this all too well because I used to be a big United frequent flier with something around 800,000 miles under my belt, “but I gave it all up a few years ago because of United’s increasingly crappy and indifferent service.”

That doesn’t happen by accident — it takes a concerted effort by a management team that is unaccountable and poorly led from the top on down.

“The fish rots from the head”

Yes, the Greeks had it right when they observed that “the fish rots from the head.” It’s even truer for businesses than it is for fish, and you need no better example of that than United Airlines.

THIS is why I’m resurrecting the Stupidus Maximus Award, because calling out horribly bad management is something anyone who cares about incredibly good management should be willing to do.

I figured this out when I was working on my MBA and found that you learn a lot more from bad case studies than you do from the good ones.

Here’s what I wrote when I first launched the Stupidus Maximus Awards back in 2007:

(If some awards) represent the pinnacle in managing, motivating and maximizing the bottom-line efforts of a workforce, there is another side — organizations that seem to do whatever they can to cripple and diminish the work of the people throughout their workforce with regressive, ham-fisted policies and actions.

I have always followed the principle that you learn more from failure than victory, from the bad rather than the good, and that the lesson learned is frequently so vivid and memorable that it might as well be branded on your brain.

In that spirit, I offer you something new: the Stupidus Maximus Award for the most ignorant, shortsighted and dumb workforce management practice of the year.”

Remembering the last Stupidus Maximus “winner”

The last winner back in 2009 was Sam Zell, then CEO of the Tribune Company. Here’s why he was the runaway winner:

  1. Zell publicly belittles his employees, swears at them, and engages in sexist, boorish, and inappropriate speech that is unacceptable in any professional environment. (Believe it or not, his public persona prompted senior managers at the Los Angeles Times to issue a memo warning the workforce that they couldn’t talk like the boss does.)
  2. He brought in power-hungry and heavy-handed managers … who publicly demeaned Tribune workers and merrily laid off journalists.
  3. He had a class-action lawsuit brought against him by current and former Los Angeles Times staffers who contend that “reckless management is destroying the value of the company.”

I summed him up like this:

“(Zell is) a man for all seasons, a guy who not only is adept at demoralizing his workforce, but also makes himself look crazy at the same time. In a world with so many bad managers, that’s a tough combination to beat.”

Send your suggestions for equally boneheaded managers and businesses to me at [email protected]. I promise I will put them to good use.