United Airlines should learn that you can’t create consistency with a lottery

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

United Airlines attempted to replace its employee bonuses with a lottery. This is a “motivational” idea so stupid that, after the employee backlash, the company had to “press pause” on it. Ironically, the plan was an attempt to encourage employees to be more consistently caring — but a plan like that shouldn’t start with random prize awards.

As far as I could tell, no one has leaked the original email announcing the lottery plan. But according to the Chicago Business Journal, which broke the story Friday, United Airlines President Scott Kirby announced that in place of quarterly bonuses for qualified employees, the airline would be conducting a drawing for quarterly prizes — cash up to $40,000, cars, and vacation packages. United would award the prizes to random employees, but only if the organization reaches its goals for “Core4,” a program that measures safe, caring, dependable, and efficient service. About 1.6% of employees would get prizes, but only people with perfect attendance (no sick days) would be eligible. Here are some excerpts from the email that rolled out the lottery program:

I couldn’t be more proud of our performance in 2017. We set all-time records in almost every operating metric, and on the metric that probably best represents our core operating performance, D:00 [on-time departures], we were number one in the industry.

As we look to continue improving, we took a step back and decided to replace the quarterly operational bonus and perfect attendance programs with an exciting new rewards program called “core4 Score Rewards.”

Here’s how a spokesperson described the program:

We announced a new internal program based on United meeting certain operational and dependability metrics as a way of offering meaningful rewards to our employees. We believe that this new program will build excitement and a sense of accomplishment as we continue to set all-time operational records that result in an experience that our customers value.

United is in the hall of fame for tone deaf actions and communication, most notably for knocking a passenger’s teeth out as it dragged him off a plane to make room for somebody with higher status. They need to make changes.

But consider the irony here. Changing a culture to one that is more consistently caring about customers requires, well, consistency. It means following a consistent set of procedures. It means consistently seeking root causes of problems and improving them. And it requires a consistent mindset focused around treating passengers as the customer, not just a problem to be dealt with as you get the plane away from the gate and to the destination.

The rewards program that goes along with this has to be consistent as well. The people who crafted these programs appear to think that “excitement” is a goal. It’s not. Consistency is the goal.

A lottery is random, not consistent. You might get a reward, you might not. And if you do, you’ll have the eternal resentment of the colleagues that helped you earn it. That is as pernicious and counterproductive a reward system as you could create.

Employees hated the idea

Unlike United, employees are clear and direct with their own communication. Here are a few comments that Inc. unearthed.

“I would be embarrassed and mortified to win this lottery. If it was possible I wouldn’t allow my name to be released and I would give my ‘winnings’ to the Flight Attendant AFA Cause Charity. I win at the expense of tens of thousands of fellow employees? No thanks.” –Flight Attendant

“Awful idea. [Current] bonus program has everyone pulling in the same direction with a common goal. This is scratching a lottery ticket…” –Captain – B-737

 “It occurred to me and my wife that this is terribly unfair to single parents. … Imagine your child coming home sick from school, no fault of your own. You are faced with calling in sick thus losing your ‘chance’ at a bonus or leaving your child/children home alone to care for themselves. What a terrible situation United has put that person in.” –First Officer – B-767/B-757

“I can’t imagine driving the Mercedes into the employee lot while everyone around me that worked just as hard, or harder got nothing. I would feel like such a jerk. It’s quite telling about the people who thought this up. I bet they would be gloating happily if they won.” –Flight Attendant – Domestic

“Respectfully…. there are many employees who depend on those bonuses and work their butts off to achieve them. Turning it to a lottery disincentivizes the hard work because most wont see a penny.” –Captain – B-737

“It felt like we had just gotten to a place where employee morale was up. It took so many years for people to feel good about what was happening. In one fell swoop, it is crushed again. … Please rethink this decision.” –Customer Service Representative

“This is an insult to every single employee at UAL. Spin it however you want, but you’re still taking money out of our pockets and putting it into yours, Scott Kirby. Shame on you. Shame on you.” –Captain – B-737

United backs down, but doesn’t apologize

United’s past stupidity typically involved doing something reprehensible, attempting to defend it, finally apologizing properly, and promising to change. The only thing that seems to have changed is the speed of the cycle. Here’s their statement about undoing the lottery idea, from the Washington Post.

Dear United colleagues,

Since announcing our planned changes to the quarterly operations incentive program, we have listened carefully to the feedback and concerns you’ve expressed.

Our intention was to introduce a better, more exciting program, but we misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you.

So, we are pressing the pause button on these changes to review your feedback and consider the right way to move ahead. We will be reaching out to work groups across the company and the changes we make will better reflect your feedback.



Lame. They’re still stuck on making the program “exciting,” but the lottery idea is indefensible and divisive. Rather than take responsibility for that, all Scott Kirby takes responsibility for is how he “misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you.” There is no indication here that United understands how introducing random chance into a bonus program creates the opposite of consistency.

If United is actually changing its culture, I’m still looking for the evidence.

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  1. “You are faced with calling in sick thus losing your ‘chance’ at a bonus or leaving your child/children home alone to care for themselves.”
    The same policy would encourage sick workers to drag themselves to work and infect their coworkers. You’d think that HR would have figured that out by now.

  2. Given United recent history, I suggest United give an extra discount to NRA members, and anyone carrying an automatic weapon….. makes for a safer flight.
    At least it would be consistent with their culture.