Should social media dictate HR policies? Lessons from Air Canada and American Airlines

Two major incidents flared up in the last few days, in the world of airline marketing. Let me first share a quick overview of what happened.

To fire, or not to fire?

The American Airlines way

Last week, US Airways tweeted out possibly the most lewd image ever sent out from a corporate account. For the sanctity of this site, we have deliberately chosen not to show it here or link to it. Since the tweet was sent as a reply to a customer’s query on Twitter, and it wouldn’t have appeared on the airline’s timeline. However, in a matter of minutes, it had spread across Twitter, and then the rest of the internet.

The biggest mistake the airline possibly made was not tweeting the image out in the first place, but not removing it for almost an hour after the incident occurred. This led to a slew of jokes and tongue-in-cheek remarks on Twitter and the rest of the web, causing significant damage to the brand.

Since American Airlines now has the de-facto control of US Airways’ social media channels, it took responsibility of the tweet. American Airlines later released a statement that the image was an inadvertent mistake and sent out unintentionally. When quizzed, the airline clarified that it would not fire the person responsible for sending it out. We at SimpliFlying felt this was the right decision, and similar sentiment prevailed on the web.


Here’s how Air Canada does it

Over the Easter weekend, Air Canada suffered a huge dent on its brand reputation, when a video was posted online, showing baggage handlers throwing gate-checked bags almost 20ft, to be loaded in the cargo hold. The video has gone viral, with over a million views, and mainstream news coverage.

The airline did fairly well, responding to tweets about the incident within minutes. And then releasing a statement that they are investigating the matter, and the actions of the handlers flouted company policies. Air Canada also went on to state that the two baggage handlers have been suspended, and will be fired, pending further investigation.

Unfortunately, what most people don’t realise is that the difference between the two incidents is that while the US Airways tweet was indeed a one-off accident, the Air Canada situation requires deeper thinking into what led to the actions of the handlers. As we have analyzed, the cause is the aircraft of high-density configurations that lead to more than normal number of gate-checked cabin bags due to overhead space being full. And this needs to be resolved at the core.

Should social media incidents dictate HR policies?

In our work with over 50 airlines and airports globally, we often ask the question, whether social media incidents should dictate the hiring policies of the company. Often, it’s due to a Facebook campaign being too successful, or a YouTube video going viral, that staff strength needs to be increased.

Though, at the other end of the spectrum lie incidents like Air Canada’s and US Airways’. Is firing the concerned employees really the only way to salvage the brand? Or would that lead to further discord between the management and the staff? How would such a knee-jerk reaction affect relationships with the unions?

Airlines need to stop thinking about social media as an afterthought of marketing.

In the age of the connected traveller, social media has an impact across departments in an airline. And if it is siloed in a cubicle in the marketing department, it will often lead to actions that are caused by panic, and not composure. A C-level executive needs to add it to his or her own agenda in order to take the right decisions.

While US Airways/American Airlines has shown maturity by standing behind its employee, Air Canada would have earned more accolades in the incident if it shared what the investigation of the incident has shown, before announcing that the baggage handlers would be let go.

What do you think? Should Air Canada fire the baggage handlers? Should US Airways have fired its employee? Let’s discuss on Twitter (@simpliflying) or in the comments section below.

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  • Airlinologist

    Those employees have no excuse for their ugly actions. They cannot defend or justify what they have done.
    They should be suspended immediately and go through scrutinized investigation.
    Finally, the outcome of the investigation would rightfully trigger a firing decision for both of them.

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