Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
Those who get them are supposedly told they have to follow a dress code.
What everyone discovered on Sunday was that this dress code outlaws leggings.
Two young girls, traveling on so-called "pass rider" friends-and-family tickets--and reportedly wearing leggings--were stopped from boarding a United flight from Denver to Minneapolis, while a third happened to have a dress with her to cover up her leggings.
All this while their dad apparently wore shorts, which were deemed just fine. One of the girls was said to be only 10 years old.
Twitter roared with disbelief, especially when United's Twitter account reacted with cold quotes from a rule book. How could United behave this way? And why?
Here are the five ways United showed a considerable lack of emotional savvy.
1. When you're enforcing rules, think about how you enforce them.
United claims that the leggings rule is in place because anyone flying on these special tickets has to follow the company's dress code, as they are deemed to be representing the airline. But enforcing rules always requires judgment. Who was actually offended by these young girls' leggings? Anyone? Sometimes, a quiet word--in this case, in a parent's ear--might have begun: " Hey, next time...." Instead, albumen and yolk all over the United logo.
2. When you're creating rules, keep them clear and up to date.
Here, United seems to insist that leggings are banned with these friends-and-family tickets, but ultimately the decision on whether to allow anyone to board rests with the gate agent. This is entirely confusing. Indeed, it's a recipe for emotional chaos. You don't want emotional chaos. You're a service business. Harmony can still thrive in an atmosphere of rules. They have to make sense in a world in which almost everyone is now wearing leggings. You should see the number of Silicon Valley engineers that wear them. I'm talking about the men, of course.
3. When you're approached by an unhappy customer, warmth and understanding matter.
Even if the customer is wrong, even if it's on Twitter, and even if that customer wasn't directly associated with the incident, don't come off as a hard-nosed attorney general. When gun-control activist Shannon Watts started to tweet about these girls, United could have shown concern. It didn't. What did it gain? Nothing. What did it lose? The emotional support of hundreds and thousands of bystanders who also happen to occasionally fly the airline. Sometimes, it's very hard to be warm and understanding. Here, the icy tone of United's tweets was just asking for trouble. And goodness, did they get it.
4. Be aware that equality between the sexes has NEVER been a more important issue.
If you're setting rules or, indeed, at the helm of United's Twitter account or its PR output, think hard about the wider social and gender ramifications. Young girls--perhaps as young as 10 years old--were kicked off a flight because of what they were wearing. It seems not to have struck United at all that this aspect was so obvious and so important. As Sarah Silverman explained to United on Twitter: "I suggest u consider updating ur rules 4 friends & fam as they seem to apply mostly 2 females & are outdated." Seth Rogen joined in: "We here at @united are just trying to police the attire of the daughters of our employees! That's all! Cool, right?" And suddenly, United was not cool at all.
5. Standing your ground is sometimes the worst thing you can do.
United keeps insisting it did nothing wrong. When I contacted a spokesman, he simply offered me updated information--which turned out to be that normal customers can, of course, wear leggings. It's merely employees and their friends and families (including kids) who have to suffer the strictures of the United Dress Code Force. This is plain embarrassing. It's one thing to enforce a rule that you claim everyone should know. It's another to come off as obdurate in the face of quite reasonable, contemporary objections. Indeed, Delta has far more relaxed rules about its so-called Buddy Passes. When assaulted from all sides, as United now is, at least say you understand and you're going to think about it. At least stop and actually think about it. Instead, oh look: United has left the impression that if this is how it treats employees and their families and friends, no wonder the staff can seem so miserable. In this Twittered moment, United appears to be a terribly unfriendly way to fly.