American Airlines has developed a reputation for a lot of things, but how's this for a surprising one? Transparency. 

Because for the second year in a row, the airline has solicited feedback from employees and then released the results to its workers. This year, 41,858 employees apparently responded to the survey, which is actually down from the 59,197 who responded last year.

You can imagine this is a dangerous and potentially embarrassing thing for the airline, given that its employees just protested against their own airline in 15 cities, are in the middle of a big lawsuit with it, and have spoken out about its policies as "unacceptable," "ridiculous, and "inhumane."

And yet, after conducting the "American Voice" survey in October, the airline recently released some of its results to its workers. Of course, it all promptly leaked, first to the airline site The Forward Cabin.

To its credit, the airline organized the results by highlighting both the "three most favorable questions" based on employee response and the "three least favorable questions."

Here are the key findings. We'll start with the least favorable ones, in part because they make the favorable ones a bit more remarkable. All three "unfavorables" have to do with an apparent disconnect between the leadership at the top and the employees actually running the airline. 

1. Leaders at American make the right decisions that take care of our frontline team members.

  • Favorable: 26.4 percent
  • Neutral: 22.3 percent
  • Unfavorable: 51.3 percent

2. Leaders at American make the right decisions that support me.

  • Favorable: 27.8 percent
  • Neutral: 22.8 percent
  • Unfavorable: 49.4 percent

3. Leaders at American listen and seek to understand the frontline team member experience.

  • Favorable: 28.0 percent
  • Neutral: 22.1 percent
  • Unfavorable: 49.9 percent

Overall, you wind up with a picture of unsatisfied employees who feel like their senior management neither understands nor even cares about supporting them. Against that, the favorables are truly remarkable.

1. I see myself working at American Airlines for the foreseeable future.

  • Favorable: 79.4 percent
  • Neutral: 14.0 percent
  • Unfavorable: 6.6 percent

2. I have meaningful relationships at work.

  • Favorable: 74.5 percent
  • Neutral: 17.2 percent
  • Unfavorable: 8.4 percent

3. My manager acts in an honest and ethical manner.

  • Favorable: 73.4 percent
  • Neutral: 18.2 percent
  • Unfavorable: 8.5 percent

Of course, airlines operate largely on seniority, so it makes sense that employees would have a high pain threshold here -- especially on the question of whether they plan to stick with American despite their complaints. 

But there's also some good news in here to my mind--suggesting that there is a real, positive foundation to build on if senior management could only figure out how. Having meaningful relationships at work and trusting your immediate manager to be honest and ethical are crucial signs of employee well-being and happiness. 

It suggests maybe there is a positive culture at American Airlines, or at least the potential to build one, but it's being buried by the conflicts between senior management and frontline employees. That's a giant challenge, but it's not insurmountable.

What to do with the data?

Some other commentators are suggesting that American Airlines solicits their employees' opinions but then doesn't do anything with the information. But, as Lewis Lazare of Chicago Business Journal pointed out a month or so ago, there are developments in 2018 that seem like they came as a direct result of the 2017 American Voice survey.

For example, the airline reported last year that a whopping 55 percent of employees reporting that they didn't have a clear understanding of American's goals and objectives. 

So now American Airlines has a weekly podcast called "Tell Me Why," in which senior executives are interviewed about big decisions. And, CEO Doug Parker and airline president Robert Isom reportedly were on track to do 38 meetings with employees during 2018. 

Is it enough? Fair question of course, and it's also worth noting that improving communication is a more discrete goal to tackle than "making better decisions," which is what the unfavorables this year are all about.

But whether you love American Airlines or loathe it, it's the biggest U.S. carrier, and we're probably stuck with it. Even if you're crammed into a 737-MAX, it's a good thing if the employees are happy, because that will absolutely affect your experience. 
 

Published on: Nov 23, 2018
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