Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

It didn't go down well.

When United Airlines announced that it was replacing its guaranteed performance and attendance bonus program with a lottery, many employees felt like passengers who had just been told their flight was canceled and there wouldn't be another one for a week.

After all, most could normally expect to receive around $1,200 a year and now they were being told that they could win $100,000. 

Well, one employee could win $100,000 every quarter. Most of the 86,000 employees won't get a bonus at all. While United might save, oh, perhaps $40 million or more.

United's president, Scott Kirby, told employees in a memo that the idea of winning a lot of money -- or a Mercedes C-Class car! -- "will build excitement and a sense of accomplishment with more bang for the buck."

Well, excited isn't quite what I'd call it. More, fuming, raging, livid, appalled, horrified and, oh, sickened.

I was given access to some of the internal conversations that are currently flying around United eyes and ears.

On the internal communication system, FlyingTogether, and on the private Facebook page, Galley Gab, employees from all parts of United expressed their feelings with forthright fervor.

This, for example, from a captain:

This is an affront to every employee at United Airlines. The negative feedback isn't about 'big change.' It's about a policy change that is clearly about taking money out of the pockets of the people doing the hard work to make this airline run while waving a few shiny objects to distract those hard-working people. They're not buying it.

Then there was this, from a Flight Attendant: 

New FA's live on a base pay of $2,081 per month before deductions. They get based in SF, one of the most expensive cities in the country..these people depend on a little extra to make ends meet. They live in crashpads with ungodly amounts of roommates..and this goes on for 6-7 years, long enough for them to climb the ladder to be able to make a livable amount of money. To take the incentives away seems unconscionable, especially since these same young people represent our best and brightest.

The deepest feeling, though, was that the new scheme would pit one employee against another.

As one Flight Attendant put it:

This is a horrible idea. Completely against what the word United means. It is obviously a method of cutting costs, but to come at the expense of employee morale is a wondrous thing to behold. It is beyond interesting to see you try to spin a fraction of a percent chance at winning anything as better than an actual quarterly bonus for our performance as a company.

Another Flight Attendant called it "team-splitting."

One Flight Attendant told me some were saying there was a more suspicious aspect.

"Some people also say this bonus change is just another way of thinning the herd. Make enough changes that hit the pocketbook and people at the higher end of the pay scale will want to leave," he said.

There was yet another painful difficulty brought up by a Flight Attendant.

"What's worse is, even if I win, the guilt of knowing that it comes at the expense of all my co-workers winning," he said.

These seem like thoughtful people, not gratuitously raging employees. These are the very people on whose work and goodwill the airline -- whose image took a vast hit after a paying passenger was dragged bloodied down the aisle of a plane -- depends.

On Flying Together, there were more than 2,100 comments. It's not hard to imagine what proportion was, well, excited.

Some employees claimed that United had closed the comments, however an airline spokeswoman told me: "Our system requires a person to go in and post each comment after it's submitted, and because it's the weekend, we have a smaller team on duty to do that." 

United's VP Anthony Scattone tried responding on the perfectly-named FlyingTogether by saying that the scheme was a reaction to employees telling the airline they wanted "more significant, meaningful rewards."

A ramp service employee replied: "How does rewarding 2 percent of the employees achieve more meaningful rewards 'in a big way,' Anthony Scattone? ridiculous."

Scattone promised that there would be more conversations in the weeks and months ahead, "as everyone adjusts."

I asked the airline whether, given these sorts of reactions, it had given any thought to, well, adjusting this game-show style lottery.

The airline didn't respond.

Published on: Mar 5, 2018