Do You Suck At Being Sorry? - Employee Responsibility - Clear and Open

Do You Suck At Being Sorry?

One of the most common complaints I hear from business leaders is a lack of employee responsibility. Employee engagement is a huge issue in many businesses, and it’s often invisible. Employee engagement studies estimate it costs the U.S. economy $370 billion a year.

I’ve noticed in the last ten years, airlines stopped apologizing for flight delays. They somehow normalized it, and we just all saw how.

This week the internet exploded with a video of a man literally dragged off a United Airlines overbooked flight. When there were not enough takers of the vouchers, rather than offer more money, United selected passengers at random to remove. When one man refused, they used force. Now, this is screwed up in all sorts of ways.

But I want to focus on the “apology” that followed:

“This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United,” said CEO Oscar Munoz. “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened…We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.”

The CEO said this.

This was the public apology.

United Airlines has about 86,000 employees, and this is how the guy at the top role-models responsibility for a population the size of a small city. He sets the tone for employee responsibility, defining what it means and how to do it, with every word he speaks or writes.


So when you wonder why the gate agent casually mentions your plane is delayed three hours without an iota of remorse, don’t be surprised. Their manager probably treats them the same way.

You can’t expect employee responsibility if it’s not in the leadership. Watch how your employees treat your customers, because it’s inevitably a reflection of how they’re managed.

Employee Responsibility In 5 Steps

Employee responsibility means knowing when to apologize and doing it well, whether you’re the CEO or on the frontline. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t taught how to apologize well. Here’s a simple guide. This is the Clear and Open model for root problem solving from the online course, Clear the Issue, and it’s easily applied to making an apology.

  1. Clearly state the issue
  2. List the total impact
  3. Explore root causes
  4. Assess personal accountability
  5. Realize small next steps

The United CEO failed at the very first step by distorting what actually happened. Here’s what he might have said, following each of the above steps.

  1. I deeply regret and apologize for the mistreatment and abusive manhandling of our customer.
  2. I realize this has shocked our loyal customers and the world, and caused many to lose confidence in our ability to serve competently.
  3. We have already begun a rigorous investigation to discover the underlying causes of this incident to understand exactly how it happened and ensure it can never happen again. Obviously this is a case where the needs of United were inappropriately put ahead of a customer, and we’re looking at everywhere that theme plays out.
  4. Key decision makers who made the call to forcibly remove the customer have been fired, and we are also looking into how others may have contributed to this incident.
  5. We will keep the public informed of the results of our investigation. We have already revised our overbooking policy to eliminate random passenger removal. In the event overbooking happens, we will offer increasing amounts of cash until people volunteer to deplane. If you have feedback for us about where you experienced our company’s needs put ahead of yours, please email us at [email protected]

Consider how often you hear business and government leaders talk this way. Yeah, almost never.

This is responsibility and it’s incredibly rare in our world, but you can change it: one apology at a time.

Beginning April 27, 2017, I’ll be teaching Open To Excellence in the Clear and Open weekly webcasts live. Professional excellence and employee responsibility go hand-in-hand. If you’ve been thinking about becoming a member, now is a perfect time.