Ask Aubrey: What's Your Take on the JetBlue Incident?

The Question:

Some weeks ago, Steven Slater, the former JetBlue flight attendant acted out the fantasy of a large contingent of employees who have had enough of on-the-job stresses. After a heated exchange with a passenger, he grabbed the PA and let out a few choice words, grabbed his stuff (including a few beers), and stormed off of the plane via the emergency exit slide announcing that he quit. Fortunately, the plane was on the tarmac and near the gate. Nobody was injured. Love to understand this behavior from your perspective.  


Aubrey's Response:

There are two aspects of this story that people need to understand: one is Mr. Slater's behavior, and the other is management's response to it. As far as Mr. Slater is concerned, in my opinion JetBlue did the right thing by firing him.  The inconvenience caused to passengers and his public display of temper was enough to warrant firing.  The reinforcement he got from the media, that of fellow flight attendants who congratulated him on acting out a fantasy that most have had when confronted by unruly passengers, and that of the public at large would have made him difficult to manage later.  Therefore, I find no fault with JetBlue for terminating him. I am not sure what the company has done to address the issue of stressful working conditions.  The most stressful part of any job is not the physical environment but the people aspect.  People’s stresses typically come from customers and management.  Of the two, management behavior is by far the most potent.  Customers are “always right.”  The fact that customers fought about overhead luggage space is a management issue.  Customers should not be put in a position to settle these grievances and flight attendants should not be put in the position of refereeing.   It is management’s job to see that adequate space is available, that gate agents deal with the luggage problem before customers board the plane, or that flight attendants are taught how to properly and positively deal with these situations if the first two options fail. Although training in managing stress on the job can be helpful, day to day contact with time consuming and unhelpful policies and managers who attempt to enforce them are at the crux of these very stressors.  I suggest that JetBlue examine management policies and management behavior involved in implementing them as two areas that are usually not seen as the source or solution to incidents such as this.  Most attention is focused on changing flight attendant behavior rather than changing management behavior.  This is short-sighted because no long term change can be sustained without changes all the way to the top of the organization.  No reports have surfaced as to such management changes at JetBlue.

Posted by Aubrey Daniels, Ph.D.

Aubrey is a thought leader and expert on management, leadership, safety and workplace issues. For the past 40 years, he has been dedicated to helping people and organizations apply the laws of human behavior to optimize performance.