It's a rough time to be an airline

Look no further than the decisions by United and American to impose massive layoffs and furloughs that began on October 1. That was the date airlines had agreed to when they received assistance from the U.S. government. Between them, those two companies say as many as 35,000 employees may lose their jobs, at least in the short term.

While the airline industry has pushed for a second round of aid to preserve jobs through next March, it's unclear whether that will happen. The president tweeted that he believes Congress should provide $25 billion for airlines despite previously indicating that there would be no further pandemic-related assistance package until after the election. 

Of all the businesses affected by the pandemic, I think it's fair to say that airlines have faced some of the greatest challenges. Not only are people simply not traveling as much (or at all), but when they do, airlines face the enormous responsibility of keeping them safe.

That combination of decreased demand and increased safety expenses makes it very hard for airlines to make money. As the entire industry has canceled flights and reduced overall capacity, it may seem logical that the quickest way to reduce expenses is to furlough employees.

Delta, however, is taking a different approach. It said in September that it will avoid furloughing flight attendants, and has delayed any pilot reductions until at least November 1. That is largely the result of the company's aggressive push for voluntary leaves of absence and early retirement. 

In a memo to employees, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said: "As difficult as this crisis has been for all of us, it has revealed the strength of Delta's character and the power of our values-led culture."

As many as 40,000 employees took a temporary leave, and Delta said as many as a fifth of its overall workforce, or around 18,000 employees, took buyouts or early retirement. More important than the fact that Delta was able to reduce its headcount is the way it did it by giving employees control of their destiny. 

According to Bastian: "As a result of these actions, Delta will be able to avoid involuntary furloughs for our flight attendants and ground-based frontline employees in the U.S., as we've effectively managed our staffing between now and the start of peak summer 2021 travel."

There is a lot you can't control right now, and even less you can predict, but you still get to decide on your values as a company and as an individual. The decisions you make reveal your character, and the way your team responds reveals whether the culture you've built can withstand the pressures of a world that sometimes seems like it's falling apart around you. 

Often when faced with difficult decisions, leaders hunker down and try to figure out the best way forward. That's the natural inclination of someone who has the title of CEO after their name, but that doesn't make it the best way to take care of your people or your business.

In Delta's case, the company chose a different approach by giving its employees both information and the ability to choose their own destiny. That goes a long way, and it also happens to be the decent way to lead. At a time when your people are concerned not just about their jobs, but everything else as well, leading well has never been more important.