Accountable Corporate Culture: Did You Get the Memo?

How easy is it to believe you have an accountable corporate culture, but be 100% wrong about that? Too easy. Consider the case of easyJet.

Do a search on “easyJet values” and you will eventually come across the following two sentences, posted prominently on the low fare airline’s “what we do” web page.

  • We never compromise on safety. 
  • Safety underpins everything we do.

That looks good on a web page, and it’s certainly among the things I want to hear from a commercial airline. But easyJet passenger Janeil Jaggers Whitworth, who has cystic fibrosis, can be forgiven if she has doubts about the airline’s commitment to safety.

Whitworth was preparing to travel from Prague to Venice on an easyJet flight. An easyJet employee insisted that she could not take on board both her carry-on bag and the bag carrying the literally life saving medication that she might need during her flight. She was told she had to choose between the two…or pay a fee so she could bring her cystic fibrosis medication bag on board.

Eventually, running short on time, she opted to pay the extra fee, but not before pointing out that easyJet’s own published policies on the matter dictated that she was in fact entitled to take on the medication bag without charge. The employee simply ignored the policy that Whitworth had found online. (For the record, it reads: “You can take any medicines and medical equipment that you need to have with you.” Whitworth definitely needed that bag!)

So, what happened here? Multiple failures of accountability. Someone in a customer-facing position apparently did not get the memo about easyJet’s own values and policy…and then ignored the policy when it was pointed out to them. But that is not really the worst of it. The real problem here is that someone in a customer-facing position did not get a living, breathing, daily example of the importance of ensuring passenger safety. This was a failure of process, yes, but it was something much more alarming than that. It was a failure of accountable leadership.

Again: the airline says that it values safety and that safety underpins everything that it does. And I suspect that the airline’s leadership imagines that simply posting those words online means that there is an accountable culture in support of those values. Well, if you value safety, then you as the leader of the organization must make choices that support safety, including training people in the values and the policy. And you must ensure that people in your organization follow your example. I will go out on a limb and suggest that leadership did not do any of that at easyJet. How do I know that? Because the decisions this frontline employee made did not support the passenger’s safety! 

The only way an employee is going to tell someone with a serious medical condition that they have to choose between having their medication and having a carry-on bag is if they believe that is what they are supposed to do. There is a reason this person didn’t feel it was important to do what was obviously the right thing to do. And that reason is called corporate culture.

It is not enough to write a good memo and send it out. It is not enough to write a good policy and put it in a binder. It is not enough to put pretty-sounding sentences about values up on your website. Someone at the top has to live those values and make sure they are driving every decision and every action. If the people at the top do not do that, they should not be surprised when people act like they didn’t get the memo.

Here is the takeaway for leadership at easyJet, and for leadership that every organization that aspires to an accountable corporate culture: If you want people to value what you say you value, you must give them first-hand examples of what it looks like to value that. You must walk your talk. You must make sure the value really is built into the decisions your people make. And if for some reason you choose not to do these things, you must understand that disasters like this are going to happen.

Make no mistake. This really was a disaster, and not just a public relations disaster. This was an employee at an airline that says it values safety, consciously disregarding a policy written to ensure the safety of a passenger. That is the kind of collapse that leads to not just unflattering articles and viral Facebook posts, but loss of life.

Here and everywhere else, accountable leadership means walking your talk.


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