Over the weekend, Colleen Long, a journalist working for the Associated Press, reported that a Southwest Airlines pilot said "Let's go, Brandon" during his routine flight announcements.
This seemingly innocuous phrase comes from a time when an NBC reporter, interviewing Nascar driver Brandon Brown, misinterpreted the crowd's chant of "F*** Joe Biden" as "Let's go, Brandon!" and it's become a replacement phrase for the crude attack on President Biden.
Southwest Airlines' response was perfect, with numerous lessons for businesses.
They did not act quickly.
Yes, you want to act as quickly as possible, but first, you do an investigation. Southwest released a statement:
"Southwest Team takes pride in providing a welcoming, comfortable, and respectful environment for the millions of Customers who fly with the airline each year, and behavior from any individual that is divisive or offensive is not condoned."
It then said that it would conduct an investigation and not comment on individual employees.
The investigation is vital and should happen before terminating or punishing any employee. (Putting an employee on a leave of absence while you conduct an investigation is not a punishment.)
Acting slowly and investigating gives you time to make the right decision.
He said a political slogan. What is there to investigate?
Sometimes you might want to react quickly. The pilot said something political! Shouldn't he be immediately fired?
No. Not without an investigation. Here is what you would want to find out.
- Did the pilot actually say, "Let's go, Brandon!"? Sometimes, there are no other witnesses than the accuser and alleged perpetrator, but there were many, many witnesses in this case. You never take the word of the accuser as absolute truth -- always ask other witnesses.
- Have other employees said the same or similar phrases to customers? You don't want to punish someone for the crime of having an AP reporter on the flight. If other flight crews were saying this, then you need to treat them all the same. Whether that means firing, suspending, telling them to knock it off, or doing absolutely nothing is up to Southwest. But it needs to be consistent.
- Have other political slogans been tolerated? Southwest has a reputation for fun announcements from flight crews. Are other employees saying things in support of or against other politicians? While there's no right to free speech at a private company, keeping things consistent is essential. You should make it an all-or-nothing.
- What does the union contract say? Most American employees are at-will employees. That means you can fire them (or they can quit) for any reason or no reason as long as that reason doesn't violate the law. But Southwest pilots are part of a union. Union contracts change the terms of employment, and, in most cases, you can only terminate an employee per the union contract.
Should the pilot be fired?
You can't answer this question without knowing the answers to the above questions. You can undoubtedly make a policy for your own company that saying political slogans to customers is grounds for termination. But be careful on how you apply that. Remember that in some states, political views are protected.
Always take the time to investigate.