United’s Policy Management Lessons

Compliance officers who want a glimpse of your future, look no further than the spectacle that unfolded Sunday morning at Denver International Airport: a tale of policy management mismanaged, reputation risk, and plenty of commentary on social media.

Some day, some way, a headache like this will be yours. This time the lucky company was United Airlines. Let’s taxi into this teachable moment.

The scandal was this: two girls arrived at DIA on Sunday morning for a United flight to Minneapolis. The gate agent then barred them from boarding because they were wearing leggings. This fashion choice, the agent told them, violated United’s contract of carriage, which includes a dress code clause. That clause allows United to deny boarding to passengers “who are barefoot or not properly clothed.”

You can guess what happened next. Someone also at the gate, with a reasonable amount of fame—Shannon Watts, a gun control activist—witnessed the exchange and tweeted about it to her 33,500 followers.

Things took off from there. Watts’ tweet was retweeted more than 4,000 times, including by celebrities Patricia Arquette and Chrissy Teigan. (Confession: I know Teigan is famous, but couldn’t tell you why. I think she’s married to John Mayer or something.) By mid-afternoon United’s decision against the girls was a Legitimate Story, written up in the Washington Post and elsewhere. It even had its own hashtag, #LeggingsGate.

At first glance, the anger against United is understandable. Is United now banning passengers from wearing yoga pants? Isn’t that sexist, since passengers wearing yoga pants are primarily women? Doesn’t this sexualize women? (Especially awkward since a third girl with the first two, who was allowed to board after she slipped on a dress over her leggings, was 10 years old.) How does United’s policy define “properly clothed” anyway, since the gate agent did allow one of the girls’ father to board wearing shorts?

Most of Sunday’s social media outrage, however, overlooked an important detail: the girls were flying on a United employee pass. United has a higher standard of conduct for those flying (for free) on “company benefit travel,” which does prohibit leggings—although, again, the gate agent has final authority about who boards.

That brings us to cruising altitude. Let’s review the flight path so far.

The Policy Management Tightrope

United had a right to insist that passengers flying at its expense, representing the airline to others, must adhere to a higher standard of behavior. That standard can include a dress code, with the sometimes questionable choice of wearing leggings in public. United had a right to draft the policy it did.

That point is worth repeating so plainly, because in the future it’s going to trip up companies so often. Businesses have plenty of discretion to draft policies for internal employee conduct. They will have more if the anti-regulation attitudes of the Trump Administration continue to hold sway.

That’s a nice advantage to have in theory. The reality, however, will be a difficult balancing act for executives in charge of policy development and management.

Of course the need for strong, clear policies will grow in the future. As the modern corporate enterprise gets ever more extended—more parties working on its behalf, handling more transactions—oversight of policy management will become crucial for corporate success.

But the more sweeping a policy is, the more thoughtfully it must be applied. That means companies will need strong mechanisms to govern exception requests, strong training so employees know when they should grant those requests—and a strong sense of culture and discipline, to defend a policy decision even others don’t like it.

Let’s circle back to United. The truth is that we on the outside of things don’t know whether the girls were wearing leggings not appropriate for flight. We don’t know whether the gate agent was an uncompromising stiff or a compassionate employee who believed he had no other choice. We don’t know how vigorously United’s senior executives want their internal dress code to be enforced. We don’t know huge amounts about this story.

We do know the consequences of that gate agent’s decision were hashed out in the ceaseless torrent of social media. People heaped plenty of criticism on United, and United returned fire with a strong defense of its policy and the gate agent’s actions.

I don’t know which side is right, and within a few days this specific controversy will fade.

The deeper lesson for compliance officers, however, is profound. Social media second-guessing of company actions will only become more common in the future. Somehow, the administration of corporate policy—which almost always leaves some people unhappy some of the time—will need to take place amid that torrent, and companies will need to weather the tough consequences.

What Social Media Does

Social media is the escape valve for all the increased transparency into corporate actions and behaviors that now exists. It lets evidence of all those actions spill into public view, whether the company likes it or not. Then anyone and everyone can evaluate those actions, regardless of context or nuance or understanding.

In other words, social media accelerates the ability to judge, without improving the ability to judge. For ethics & compliance officers, that means every compliance risk is now magnified into a reputation risk.

Is that a new phenomenon? Not really; non-compliance and poor policy management brought unwanted public judgment before the Internet, too. But that reputation risk was easier to see coming; you had more time to prepare. And, frankly, many times the risk was less, because the reputation damage simply didn’t spread. Imagine if this United incident had happened in 1975. Hardly anyone would hear about it.

Today, however, the reputation risk stemming from policy management—that risk is instant, and immediate. So exercising good judgment in the first place, and standing ready to defend it, will become crucial components of a compliance program in the future.

Training, values, culture, judgment. Funny how those four things keep cropping up, isn’t it?


  1. […] One practical example of this is the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, a project supported by institutional investors that takes data disclosed by large businesses (that is, transparency) and uses it to pressure those businesses into improving their conduct. Another is United Airlines: the company stumbled into a social media snafu recently when it barred two girls from boarding a flight while wearing leggings. That decision was in compliance with company policy (no leggings for people flying on United employee guest passes), but the ensuing outcry underlines the importance of clear policy, good judgment, and when to grant exceptions or stand firm. […]

  2. […] For more insight, read Matt’s blog post, “United’s Policy Management Lessons” […]

  3. […] scandal last week was United exiling two girls for wearing leggings on a flight from Denver to Minneapolis. The scandal this week, as the entire business travel community already knows, was United forcibly […]

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