Systemic Failures of Culture that Override Reason, Common Sense and Decency

By: Pat Harden, President of Harden Communication Partners

As we watch the video of a United passenger bloodied and being dragged off the plane, we are horrified.  Reading the Wells Fargo Board’s scathing report about the Bank’s massive fraud, I am horrified all over again by the scale and pervasiveness of the misbehavior. 

In both cases, we see a culture where employees are driven to make bad—and even illegal—decisions, based on fear and a lack of empowerment to respond to customers’ interests. Rigid operational frameworks, where financial metrics override the values of honesty and common decency, appear to dominate both cultures.  As the owner of a PR firm, I can tell you the problem in both cases is much deeper than PR or “damage control” alone can solve.

My first brush with the disempowered branch personnel at Wells Fargo occurred when I moved to the Bay Area from Kansas City and attempted to open a checking account.  I was informed that my checks would take many, many weeks to clear….is Kansas not part of the United States? When I asked to speak to the manager, hinting that I could potentially bring more assets to the bank, I was told the manager could not help me because “a computer made all the decisions and could not be overridden.” Enough, I am a happy customer of another bank, which has the slogan “It’s a privilege to serve you.” And they actually behave that way.

Where to start with United and its corporate culture? Personally I equate the United flight experience with what prison must be like, with flight attendants as the sadistic guards at a correctional facility.  “Do not congregate in the aisle, do not use your devices, do not, do not, and return to your seat now!” Recently when I attempted to obtain a glass of wine on a United flight, the sullen attendant informed me that it was “awful” and begged me not to blame him for the poor quality of the beverages available.  When I requested a blanket on a different United flight, the attendant told me that “they don’t give us enough anymore, so bring your own next time.” These workers are disempowered and obviously miserable in their jobs.  Maybe because many lost their pensions?  Fortunately other airlines are adding more nonstops to the East coast. 

What is the lesson from these sad stories?  There are many lessons, but a big one is: culture matters. Companies can build a culture that balances humane values with adherence to financial metrics and operational protocols. Let’s hope both of these companies learn to incorporate fundamental human values like respect for their customers, respect for the law and respect for their own employees into their corporate culture.  Maybe employees who are empowered to exercise their brains and common sense will make better decisions than their leaders have.