Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Steven Slater, Air Travel, and Organizational Ethics

One day after Jet Blue flight attendant Steven Slater cursed out a passenger, grabbed a beer, and then bolted from the plane by sliding down the emergency exit chute after the passenger (a) took his out luggage too soon, (b) didn't follow Slater's directive to stay seated and (c) let the overhead compartment door fall onto Slater's head, Slater has become an international celebrity.

Apparently the chute could have injured or even killed anyone who was standing under it if it came down on top of them, so what Slater did was recklessly dangerous. But Jesse James and other folk heroes actually murdered people, which makes Slater more deserving of folk stardom than they were. A Facebook legal defense fund for Slater is raising money hand over fist.

Airline passengers and flight attendants see themselves as fellow victims of airline efforts to cut costs. High unemployment means that flight attendants have fewer job choices, and a poor transportation system reduces choices for passengers. Everyone feels trapped and helpless. That's where Steven Slater comes in. He refused to be helpless and bucked the system in dramatic fashion.
Twenty-seven years ago in "The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling," Arlie Hochschild described how flight attendants were trained to "produce" positive emotions on the job. It's much harder for attendants to do that under current working conditions. There's no established code of conduct for passengers, but passenger civility is also down.

The social compact around airline travel is badly frayed. Slater's theatrical exit from the Jet Blue flight won't change the price of fuel or other aspects of airline economics, but it may be a wake-up call for airline personnel management.

Many years ago I was chairing a meeting of 10-15 people in my office. My phone rang, and when I picked it up a colleague immediately started to harangue me about a trivial problem. I forgot that I was leading a meeting, yelled "don't you dare talk to me like that," and slammed the phone down. Later I told a colleague how disturbed I was to have erupted that way. My wise colleague said - "it was really a good thing - people will say 'Sabin is usually a reasonable and fair-acting guy, but every now and then he goes ballistic if he's pushed too hard, so keep yourself in line!'"

Reasoned, evidence-based argument is the preferred way to point out organizational failures and promote change. But change doesn't come easily. Organizational ethics also needs Steven Slaters who go over the top in a way that's hard to ignore.

(For the original New York Times story, see here.)

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