Gunning for the Boss: Online Management Complaints

There is much to be said for websites that highlight the problems of companies, they offer the business a real incentive to improve or suffer growing humiliation and shrinking business as their story circulates across the Web. However, the pilots at United have taken this one step further by devoting a website to getting rid of United’s Chairman and CEO, Glenn Tilton. 

For the pilots, when they picture the problems facing their once-great airline, it is Tilton’s face they see and Tilton’s head they would like to see roll. In the six years he has been in United’s pilot seat, at a comfortable $1.12 million per year, customer satisfaction with the airline has gone into the toilet and as for employee satisfaction, that’s been flushed. These are facts and according to the pilots, their causes have nothing to do with the pressures that beset their industry: 

United’s failures are the result of a combination of management incompetence, short term decision making, and self dealing in decisions about how to position United Airlines for the future. 

That is pretty strong stuff, a dismissal of oil prices, competition, union demands and the like and a demand for personal responsibility on the part of management, and it isn’t the end. The pilots want your help to send Tilton and his cadre in United’s executive suite out to pasture. 

Tales from the Failure-side

It is one thing to pen a caustic, rhetorical attack on a CEO, which would be expected. In fact, you can find it right on the homepage. What is different is that the creators of this site are offering you, the flying public, the chance to pile on. 

Broken up into categories, you can read news stories about United’s myriad problems, horror stories from employees and passengers, and dark tales of operational problems as well as strategic and financial issues. What’s more, you can not only submit your own United Tale of Woe, you can submit to the person the site says is responsible, Tilton himself. Consider this post from Lisa, a flight attendant: 

Never in my career at United have I felt so undervalued as a human being and employee and sadly I am one of many employees who feel the same. Yes, I could get another job, but mine is unique and one I have grown to like very much. I choose to be confident in United's future and a good start would be a new leader. 

OK, this is one person. However, under the Strategy tab, we read this: 

What’s the best defense against rising fuel prices? To Tilton’s management team at United, the answer is a host of new charges and restrictions on travel, guaranteed to anger travelers and place United at a competitive disadvantage.

Over the weekend of April 19th, the airline introduced two new “Upgrades:”

  • A new $150 change fee for domestic itineraries, a 50% increase over the prior $100 fee.
  • New Saturday night stay restrictions that apply to almost 65% of our markets, a return to the “bad old days” of much higher fares for business travel. 

Of course, the airline blames the lack of operating earnings on fuel costs, and intends to recoup it from you, their customers. Instead of boosting earnings, this decision will simply boost business at low cost carriers and other airlines that have not opted for draconian change fees and flight restrictions. 

Of course, all of this begs the larger question: What is this airline doing paying huge dividends to shareholders, and offering gigantic bonuses to inexperienced executives who make boneheaded decisions to cover bad management with higher fees and more restrictions? 

These are simply two of many possible examples that I could site. The point is that the pilots want Tilton gone and they are not going to rest until he and his executives are replaced. Why not? He presided over the gutting of the employee pension fund and the bankruptcy of the company while collecting multi-million dollar paychecks. Obviously, performance-based pay is not something that the UAL Board is familiar with, unless Tilton is getting the special CEO treatment. For example, would a manager at an airport, after compiling such a stellar list of failure, be treated as well by the company? Somehow, I think our manager’s parachute would not be so golden. In fact, I think he’d be lucky to get unemployment. I also think that this is really at the core of the pilot’s complaint. 

They see a guy who makes self-serving decisions that have brought a once-proud airline to the brink of ruin, a guy who many see as a thief for gutting their pension plans, a guy who was brought in for his executive experience (as opposed to actually knowing anything about running an airline) and let the stock price fall by more than 70% since the company emerged from bankruptcy. The fact that he not only got away with all of this but is also paid millions of dollars is more than they could deal with. 

Hence the drive to get rid of him, and the website. 

The Bottom Line

Tilton’s story is a parable for all executives and business owners, large and small. It is bad enough to have the company targeted by irate employees or, worse, by angry customers. The PR and sales damage could be incalculable. However, when the source of that anger assumes a name and a face—the CEO, the president, the owner—then I have to wonder if things are now beyond the point of repair. It’s personal now, and the target is demonized. Nothing they might do in the future will change that feeling about them. The target can fight to keep their position and in doing so risk tearing the organization apart. When Richard Nixon faced impeachment, he understood this and resigned for the good of the nation. He could have fought it, and he might have won, but he thought of what was best the nation as opposed to what was best for himself. Will Tilton feel the same way about United? We’ll have to see. 

What is not so hard to foresee is that like company whistle blowing sites, you will start to see more and more executives pilloried on the Internet. The United Pilots opened the way with Glenn Tilton. I am looking forward to seeing who will be next.