American Airlines Has an Accountability Problem

Did you happen to see the recent story about how American Airlines humiliated a passenger by informing her that she would not be able to fly unless she covered up her strapless outfit? It was really a story about an accountability problem.

Dr. Tisha Rowe, who was wearing a perfectly appropriate summer romper, was told, in front of her son, “You are not getting on the plane dressed like that.” She donned a blanket in order to take her assigned seat, then tweeted about the exchange, beginning a national discussion about the apparent double standard. (Rowe is African-American.) “We are policed for being black,” she argued on Twitter. “Our bodies are sexualized as women and we must ADJUST to make everyone around us comfortable. I’ve seen white women board a plane with much shorter shorts without a blink of an eye.”

She has a point. And whether American Airline’s leadership realizes this or not, this incident points toward an accountability problem…a big one. Accountable leaders commit to providing employees and customers with a safe space. Dr. Rowe, for whatever reason, did not experience that. The way she was treated by American Airlines staff was harsh and inappropriate, and it apparently had a traumatizing effect on her son, who was traveling with her. I travel a lot and it is indeed difficult to imagine an identically dressed white woman being singled out in this way.  That says to me that there is some kind of problem with bias internally at American, regardless of the fact that the flight attendant who had the exchange with Dr. Rowe was black. American appears to have acknowledged as much: it granted Dr. Rowe and her son a full refund. While that is a good start, it leaves a number of troubling questions unanswered, questions that all accountable leaders should be asking themselves regularly:

  • How do we create a safe space for employees and customers?
  • How do we see each other inside our organization?
  • Do our actions align with our words?
  • Do we see people equally…or do we allow double standards to guide our decisions?

Accountable leaders know that employees will never treat customers better than leadership treats employees. Employees will never see customers better than leadership sees customers. And a double standard can never coexist with accountability and in a safe space.


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