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Avoid Disaster by Embracing Employee Discretion

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 17, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As lawyers, we're not always fans of employee discretion. That's why we like strong policies and clear guidelines, things that can make sure that a worker's poorly made decision doesn't result in a company-wide f--- up.

But too much restraint, and too few opportunities for employees to use their own good judgment, can be counteractive. Indeed, according to Harvard Business School professor John Deighton, it might even lead employees to have your customers dragged off airplanes, bruised, bloody, and primed for internet outrage.

The Friendly Skies, Eh?

Deighton, writing in the Harvard Business Review, argues that companies need to "cultivate good judgment, and free their employees to use it." His chief example is the appalling treatment of a passenger on United Airlines flight 3411.

In case you somehow missed the hullabaloo, here's a quick recap. United, faced with an overbooked flight, needed to open up seats to transfer its crew. When no one volunteered to take a later flight, United told four passengers that they would have to deplane. One passenger refused. He was a doctor, he said. He had patients to see. This was his seat, which he paid for, and he wouldn't be giving it up.

So United called the police, who dragged the man from his seat, down the aisle, his shirt hiked up and his face bleeding, to the horror of his fellow passengers -- who, of course, recorded the whole thing.

Embracing Employee Discretion

So, what's United's PR disaster have to do with employee judgment? Deighton writes:

The public reacted to the video with horror. Those flight attendants must have been appalled, too, as they watched the customer - who just a few minutes earlier was supposed to have been greeted on the plane with smiles and welcomes - being dragged, face bleeding, past other customers. What must they be thinking now? We were powerless to intervene, they might say. Civility was no longer an option. We called security. That was what management told us to do.

Even "the nimblest and deftest crisis management response," Deighton argues, "cannot contain the damage of going straight to 'call security' and crossing the last line of defense in customer service design."

So what's the alternative? Discretion.

Machines follow orders. People use discretion. Learning the importance of that truism is the lesson of this awful situation, and it will be a lesson of growing relevance and application as algorithms and machines play ever larger roles in service delivery.

At least here, discretion could have avoided the horrible scene on flight 3411. It might have saved United from a lawsuit too. That poor man, torn from his seat? He's lawyered up.

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