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HR’s Perspective on the Jet Blue Flight Attendant

A Look at Employee Behavior: The Case of the Jet Blue Flight Attendant

By now we’ve all heard about the tirade of Jet Blue flight attendant Steve Slater, although the ground swell of support and assignment of cult hero status seems to have shifted some since the story first broke. As an HR professional, it was disconcerting to see the acceptance and praise of his actions. While most people can relate to a time when they’ve been fed up at work, it’s irresponsible and potentially dangerous to reward and encourage the expression of that anger in destructive ways at the workplace.


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That being said, there are certainly some good takeaways from this situation for HR practitioners. The economic climate’s impact on the job market has well-publicized consequences. Record high unemployment rates, massive layoffs, etc. But there isn’t as much attention placed on the impact on the “survivors.” We tend to think that those who have been able to retain their jobs are “lucky” and therefore they should just be happy to be employed. Companies start to think they can relax in their efforts to keep employees engaged and satisfied with their work environment. Wrong.

In a tight labor market, we get frustrated with employee’s levels of entitlement.

In a bad economy, we get frustrated with employees not being grateful.

Who’s to Blame for the Outburst of the Jet Blue Flight Attendant?

While some people resonated with Slater’s “take that” outburst, his behavior was inappropriate and irresponsible. The question that seemed to be asked for days was, “Who’s really to blame?” Slater? The government? The economy? Jet Blue? The answer could be all three to some extent.

Slater’s fault is clear. As an adult and an employee, he is responsible for figuring out how to manage his emotions and deal with them in an appropriate manner while at work without putting others in harm’s way.

The government, or whomever you hold accountable for our economic crisis, also carries some of the blame. People are worried, stressed out, under tremendous pressure to attain and retain work, to provide for themselves and/or their families, all without knowing how long this current situation will last. Companies are faced with the tug-of-war between trying to retain their employees and managing limited resources.

In most cases, those that were not laid-off have not had it easy. Employers have expected everyone to do more with less; to do their jobs and the jobs of those who were let go, all for the same or less pay. The hours, the pressure, the worry… it all takes a toll. Slater’s behavior, and the other workplace violence stories in the news recently, are not a big surprise. Bad economic times breed insecurity and fear. And after all, isn’t it said that anger is just fear turned outward?

HR and Management’s Responsibility for Employee Behavior

So what about the companies’ responsibility in these incidents? Employees are being pushed harder and harder without reward, yet the common response to their complaints is that they should just be grateful to be employed. While there is absolutely some truth to that, human nature dictates that this rosy view will not persist for long or at minimum, will not persist in the face all circumstances.

So what is the advice for employers?

1) Pay attention to employee behavior. It is a company’s responsibility to pay attention to what is going on with their employees. Keep a keen eye out for disruptive employee behavior, negative comments, strange behavior, anger, threats, and physical aggression. Violence and rage typically occur on a continuum and we have to be paying attention. Workplace incidents typically arise from conflicts that have been festering over time and ultimately reach a breaking point. There are often subtleties that lead up to an employee outburst. While there truly are situations where nobody ever would or could have guessed that an employee would act out, more commonly there were small clues along the way and others either weren’t paying attention or chose to ignore the sign. While we may not want to seem like we’re overreacting, it’s our responsibility as employees and employers to adhere to the age-old adage of “better safe than sorry.”

2) Never stop thinking about and investing in employee engagement and satisfaction. Never forget that tides will change. If we take our eye off the ball during this period, we run the risk of even more tough times ahead. As the economy recovers, we don’t want to be in a situation where our valued but frustrated employees quickly jump ship once their job options increase again. Rewarding the performance and behavior that you want is critical regardless of external factors. Paying attention to and investing in your employees’ engagement and happiness is always an employer’s responsibility.


Eliza Polly
Solutions Consultant

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