Empathy Isn’t In the Rule Book, It Is The Rule Book

United Airlines found itself embroiled in a completely preventable situation this weekend after a gate agent refused to allow two young girls on a flight because they were wearing leggings. Can’t make this up.

As reported in the New York Times:

“Jonathan Guerin, a spokesman for United, confirmed that two teenage girls were told they could not board a flight from Denver to Minneapolis because their leggings violated the company’s dress code policy for “pass travelers,” a company benefit that allows United employees and their dependents to travel for free on a standby basis.”

There are many things wrong with this situation.

Nobody Sees the Rules, They See the Employee

This matter came to light as the ruckus led bystanders to begin tuning in and, eventually, turning to social media to share the events in realtime. These were young teenagers dressed in a manner than did not seem to offend anyone observing, nor was that dissimilar from how most people are accustomed today.

In this moment, people see an agent, capable of expressing empathy and understanding instead clinging to the rule book for dear life. Rules make sense when we can understand the greater purpose they serve. Rules fall apart when they put as at odds with the customer.

As it turns out, this party was made up of “pass travelers”, aka friends of the company. United reasonably can afforid additional consideration to this kind of travel, but do you think anyone looking on knew this or cared? The wheels were already coming off the tracks, fast.

“In our Contract of Carriage, Rule 21, we do have the right to refuse transport for passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed,” the company tweeted. It added, “There is a dress code for pass travelers as they are representing UA when they fly.”

In short, whenever you have to drop down to the rule book, you have failed. It means reason and empathy have been abandoned for absurdity and apathy.

Nobody Sees the Employee, They See the Company

Doubling down on the trouble is that while this employee was following the rules, they are full and faithful representative of United. Every employee is human and fallible. By extension, then, the company is equally culpable in this situation. While the localized blame might have been towards the agent, the fast-moving swell of discontent was aimed squarely at United.

Given the chance to listen and repair, the immediate reaction is to defend. This is an easy, and understandable reaction. United should be commended for standing by its employees, but the broader practices and processes in place are what’s failing in this situation and can’t be glossed over.

“Employees running United’s Twitter account spent the day walking a public relations tightrope: explaining to angry social media users why the company was not wrong to bar the young women from boarding, while reassuring potential customers that they would not also be barred if they showed up in leggings.”

Once again, being put on the defensive is the least desirable situation possible. Working from an experience deficit, no one was willing to defend United.

Nobody Sees the Company, They See the Customer

Ultimately, this all falls on the back of a terrible customer experience. Most travelers don’t hold in high regard much of the travel industry as a whole. From long lines, soaring prices, intrusive measures, and opaque processes there’s much room for improvement in the experience of travel.

As consumers, we quickly and readily empathize with the experience of our peers — after all, they are best shared experiences and, at worst, predictors of our own future. In this case, these young ladies represent our daughters, wives, mothers, and more. This is NOT the experience we would design for them and certainly it’s the furthest from the treatment we’ve parted with our hard earned dollars for.

A true measure of a company is how it treats its employees. What makes this experience even more distressing is that, as pass travelers, they are an extension of the United family. The agent pushing back was pushing back, effectively, against one of their own.

For what it’s worth, United gets this:

“We could have stopped to immediately ask the right questions,” he said. “We are always engaging with our customers as quickly as possible. Now we are going back. All day we’ve been going back since that earlier tweet. Now we’re going back and telling people what is actually going on.”

Wouldn’t it have been better to go forward on the right foot from the get-go?


The common thread to all of these things challenges is that empathy is a central requirement for the kind of customer experience that drives advocacy and loyalty. For every persona, product or process that we articulate as the organization, empathy provides us with a persistent, durable buffer on the rapidly evolving customer and social norms.

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