United Employees Are Venting Their Fury at Management Over New Bonus Lottery

Mar 5, 2018

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On Friday, United Airlines President Scott Kirby sent out an internal memo with an immediate change to the airline’s quarterly bonus structure for employees.

Until this announcement, flight attendants, gate agents, customer service representatives, pilots, counter agents, ramp agents, “management and administrative employees levels 5 and below” — and possibly more — were eligible to earn up to $375 each quarter the airline meets operational goals.

After the change, if the airline meets operational goals, the airline will now pay out $100,000 to one lucky employee drawn by lottery, along with 1,360 smaller prizes — provided the employee has a perfect attendance record. While the announcement memo said this was meant to “build excitement and a sense of accomplishment,” it has “ignited a firestorm” internally when employees figured out that this was a sneaky way for United to cut employee bonuses by tens of millions of dollars each year.

Now, we have the chance to see some of these employee comments. In response to Scott Kirby’s announcement of the new bonus program on the airline’s “Flying Together” internal forum, there have already been over 1,700 comments from employees. A source within United, who requested anonymity in order to share internal documents, provided TPG with those comments.

In addition to these published comments, we’ve heard from multiple United employees that there were plenty of other employee comments that have been deleted by United moderators. A United spokesperson, however, told TPG that the airline isn’t censoring comments. It’s simply because the commenting “system requires a person to go in and post each comment after it’s submitted.” Since this situation is happening over the weekend, there’s a smaller team working on approving comments.

Before we get to the comments, it’s important to note that these comments were posted on United’s internal forum with the full name and role of the person posting. We have chosen not to disclose names, to protect the privacy of employees. Some comments have been lightly edited for grammar.

Working as a Team vs. Luck of the Draw

Multiple flight attendants and customer service representatives pointed out how the old bonus system encouraged everyone to work together to meet goals. Instead, the new bonus structure could end up giving large bonuses to potentially undeserving employees:

Sometimes you guys get it right, sometimes you get a wrong. This was one wasn’t even close. The brilliant nature of the old program that worked was everyone was given an incentive to pull in the same direction to help the reliability of the operation. Imagine your dismay when a colleague of yours wins through the lottery system and you know they are one of the laziest unmotivated people you know. Perpetuates the old adage…better to be lucky than good.

All frontline employees working together as a team should all share the bonuses, not a lottery of a few lucky winners. Please reconsider.

With the performance bonus program, we (the employees) were all working together toward a common goal, and I thanked my co-workers every quarter when I received my bonus. Now it’s “luck of the draw” and hoping that your name is drawn in the “performance and dependability” lottery.

I find it very disheartening, that you took something that we ALL looked forward to as a whole, and now changed it to a FEW who will benefit. Did you not go to the frontline and ASK us? The employees? What we like, what we do not like? That extra in our paychecks was a nice little bonus, and something to look forward to. How can you now have a program that will penalize people for medical emergencies or taking care of a family member who is sick or dying?

It was just a few years ago that management did away with the Ford Explorer drawings with the logic that they wanted to give all employees something that they could count on, and from which all employees could benefit, rather than the lucky winners of Lotto, and Vegas style drawings.

Upper Management Out of Touch

A large number of comments focused on how this decision shows how “out of touch” upper management is.

How sad that UA upper management is so out of touch with employees that they would think that we would be “excited” about this change to our bonus and attendance programs. As a matter of fact, the travelling public also sees it as bad. Only bean-counters would see this as good.

I find it unbelievable that management is so out of touch with their work force. To tout this announcement as something that workers would be excited about and appreciate just shows how elitist they are. This program is totally contradictory to the CORE4 “we are listening, we are one” philosophy!

This is NOT a way to boost morale! It does quite the opposite. I wonder what kind of bonus was given to those in the big tower who came up with this nonsense. They obviously don’t realize how this can affect some workers. Upper management is extremely out of touch with the average worker.

I haven’t seen or heard one positive comment from a front line employee regarding this “new and enhanced” program. Upper management is so out of touch with the front line, it would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

This management team remains completely out of touch with the front line. And now it’s getting even worse. This program is so wrong, on so many levels. On time performance is about teamwork. We all win, or no one wins. Now you’ve turned this into some elitist Hollywood style media show. No doubt you’ll be creating your own photo ops to look like heroes. This program divides and punishes more than it rewards.

Smacks of American Airlines

One flight attendant says that this move “was inspired directly from American Airlines management.” Current United president Scott Kirby was president of American Airlines when the airline’s management dug itself a massive morale hole with its flight attendants.

In my opinion, this letter has demolished the steady climb in employee morale that [United CEO] Oscar Munoz has been building for the last few years after the Smisek debacle.[Previous CEO Jeff Smisek stepped down in 2015 amid a corruption probe by federal authorities.] It looks like it was inspired directly from American Airlines management modus operandi where employee morale is bottom and employees are not regarded as assets but cattle.

This program is right out of AA playbook. Why don’t we instead take a look at Delta’s? We’ll never beat Delta at anything until UA management understands that happy employees make happy customers.

When my friend’s at American Airlines warned me about things that would be coming out way with our leadership, I didn’t believe them. I do now. Whoever thought this would be a good plan, should be ashamed of themselves.

United’s Response

United VP of Human Resources Anthony Scattone took to the forum to “encourage [employees] to give this program a chance”, noting that “hopefully everyone can begin to see some of the really great things about this new direction.”

In response to concerns that employees would be coming to work sick in order to meet the perfect attendance requirement, Scattone makes it seem like it’ll be no big deal for employees to miss out on a drawing for a quarter: “Clearly we don’t want anyone to come to work who is legitimately sick and while it may make you ineligible one quarter, you’ll likely be back the next.”

And, what about the idea of everyone sharing a bonus when the company does well — like the prior system did? Scattone’s take: “While we’d love to, we can’t give everyone a car or $1,000 every quarter — but we can find a way to give major rewards to many of you.”

After the announcement, a United employee began a Change.Org petition asking management to reconsider the decision. In the short time it was available, the petition received 1,116 signatures. However, it’s no longer open for signing. The employee responsible for the petition reports being contacted by management:

I was warned and advised by management that having that petition was against our work guidelines and I should take it down. Now I had to swallow my pride and do so because I truly love my job and don’t want to get in trouble.

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