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

Words matter. 

Even if they're in a memo. Especially if they're in a memo sent by a senior executive to all of his 86,000 employees.

I felt a peculiar twitch just above my eyebrow, therefore, when I read some words sent by United Airlines President Scott Kirby to all those who work at United.

The words concerned the removal of their quarterly performance bonuses, to be replaced by a lottery, in which someone could win $100,000 and others could get a few other prizes. Such as $20,000. Or, um, $2,000.

It could be you.

Then again, it most likely won't be you, as there aren't that many prizes. 

Which means if you work for United and are eligible for a bonus, you'll be out around $1,200 a year -- the amount normally received by many employees. 

Now I can imagine Elon Musk or some other leader blessed with vast charisma either looking at United's scheme and instantly balking or finding a completely different way to approach it.

Here's how Kirby began his sell: "As we look to continue improving, we took a step back and decided to replace the quarterly operational bonus and perfect attendance programs with an exciting new rewards program called Core4 Score Rewards."

Just like that. We decided to replace.

So looking to continue improving meant taking a step back and summarily removing a bonus that many of the staff relied on?

It's a curious logic, one that says: "How do we get them to improve? How about taking away their bonus?" To be followed by "heh-heh-heh."

Then there's that phrase "rewards program."

What does that remind you of? Why, frequent flyer miles. And what has happened to those miles over recent years? Why, they've become significantly devalued.

Might this give you a clue to what's on United's mind here?

Still, Live and Let's Fly offers the most pulsating -- to me, at least -- words of the memo.

"The reason for this change goes to the heart of our strategy: offering meaningful rewards will build excitement and a sense of accomplishment with more bang for the buck," says Kirby.

So the previous performance bonus was meaningless, it seems.

And more bang for the buck, some might grunt, is what management will be getting, not the employees. 

May I repeat: It seems that most of them won't get a bonus at all.

Employees are unlikely to be taken in by this flimsy attempt at verbal prestidigitation. 

They know a lot about how the airline is run.

And going by the emails I've already gotten from flight attendants, they're appalled their bonus policy is being turned into what one described to me as "like one of those email contests where it says, 'click here for a chance to win,'" and another described as a game show.

Many of these suitcases contain nothing at all! But one has a Mercedes C-Class worth $40,000!"

Kirby, indeed, like a game-show host, wants his audience to be fixated on that Mercedes, just as a lottery player is fixated on the $15 million they're never going to see. 

"We want every United team member to picture themselves walking home with a grand prize, or driving home in a beautiful car that announces for all to see that you are committed to your success and ours," Kirby said.

Is that what the Mercedes would announce for all to see? Or would it rather announce: "I won a raffle! I can't even afford the insurance because of how little United pays me!"?

Ultimately, such communication from management is about psychology. 

It's about first deciding on the positives of the new scheme and how to bring it in. It's about simply presenting a fait accompli with a glaring downside.

Then, it's about choosing words that will bring the employees onto your side. 

It seems that United's management really did think its employees would give up a guaranteed bonus in favor of a raffle ticket. 

Did no one at United imagine the employees might see through it?

Did they not conceive that some employees would see it as a crude cost-saving attempt inspired by cynical parsimony, or an underhanded way of saying they're not working hard enough and therefore need to be inspired by an "enter for a chance to win!" mentality? 

Most aggravating, surely, is the painfully transparent hucksterism of Kirby's tone. 

I contacted United to ask whether it had endured any adverse reaction from employees.

All an airline spokeswoman would tell me was: "We believe that this new program will build excitement and a sense of accomplishment as we continue to set all-time operational records that result in an experience that our customers value."

"Will build excitement."

"Come on down!" says the United Airlines president. "See if you can win on the Big, But Not So Big, United Giveaway!"

I worry the ratings for this show won't be very high.

Published on: Mar 4, 2018