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Service lessons from United's leggings debacle

29th Mar 2017
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United Airlines found itself in a social media disaster earlier this week when media reports began circulating that two teenage girls were kicked off a flight for wearing leggings.

Angry messages began pouring in across Twitter, Facebook and news websites discussing the apparent sexist policy of policing the clothing of young women, particularly clothing most women nowadays feel is perfectly find public wear. The details of the case - such as the fact that the girls were guests of the company benefit travel program - were not shared as widely and did little to alleviate the anger  of the public.

The incident was a learning tool for companies everywhere on how not to handle social media, and how to handle customer service in a public relations disaster.

Respond quickly to social media disasters

Companies finding themselves in a social media firestorm need to step out in front of the disaster. The more people check your social media and find there is still not a response, the more they will feel that a company is deliberately ignoring a problem or failing to realize that they’ve angered the public.

By issuing a statement early, you give the public some indication that you are aware of the criticism and are listening to complaints. Further, a quick response will slow down much of the firestorm by reassuring people they don’t need to take any more action to show the company they’re upset. Once it’s been communicated that the company understands people are angry, the angry tweets and messages will slow down.

Your response should also be sensitive - acknowledge there’s a problem and you are going to fix it, and either don’t share any more or explain that you will fix it to the public’s liking. If you don’t plan to, just promise to address the issue - the public is even less interested in being lied to than being ignored.

Be consistent with your rules

Another major problem customers had with the policy was that they were unclear as to why the two girls were singled out for their leggings when many customers have worn leggings on United Airlines flights without incident. The reason is because the company has different clothing standards for customers who bought tickets and customers who are participating in the company’s travel program.

The thing about such a policy is people generally don’t like the idea of being held to different standards. This is not consistent, and it left people upset. Companies, like web host iPage, are very cognizant of this. Are leggings inappropriate? Why are they inappropriate for some and not others? Do they become significantly more scandalous on the legs of a non-paying customer? The logic simply left most people with a bad taste in their mouth.

United Airlines needs a consistent policy across the board, not different rules for different flyers. The lack of consistency has turned people off.

Re-evaluate your policies during a crisis

Look, here’s the biggest problem people have with the policy: it’s high time we stop acting like leggings are sinful bad pieces of clothes, and to enforce the idea that they’re bad on two teenage girls just looks like a smorgasborg of misogynistic drivel. After all, teenage girls rebelling against identical school uniform codes have been stirring up protests across the country for a couple years now, doing everything from wearing red A’s to school - resembling the Scarlet Letter - to writing feminist messages on t-shirts in protest.

Teenage girls, feminists and women in general are tired of being told leggings are inappropriate and overly sexy. It’s clear among women that we don’t disagree, and the fact that the policy doesn’t apply to paying customers makes people feel as though the girls were being held to a particular standard that was both irrational and outdated.

Companies need to abandon outdated rules, particularly outdated rules that seem to target women in particular. In this matter, it is no one but United Airlines’ fault that their policy reflects outdated, sexist policy. There’s nothing wrong with leggings; the airline has to accept modern standards among women have changed.

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By siluri
30th Mar 2017 13:55

Totally disagree.

Before jumping on the 'virtue-signalling outrage' bandwagon I would draw attention to the facts.

The dress-code for staff and family is not just a United policy - it's an industry-wide standard that's well understood by anyone who works in the travel sector. Nor can it be said to be targeted at women because the policy also applies to what men can wear.

A man travelling on what is effectively a free ticket may well consider the need to wear a jacket to be 'outdated' but does that make it a sexist policy aimed at telling men what they can or cannot do when taking advantage of such a benefit?

This is about an employee value exchange - in return for a highly desirable perk the industry expects that people make an effort to look smart (quite what 'smart' means in practice is of course a whole different question).

So, please be wary of being outraged on behalf of someone else...

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