Smile Politely

The working-class hero

Well, since everyone else is discussing the JetBlue employee, Steven Slater, and his yet-to-be-determined hero status, I might as well join in the debate. For those who are not up-to-date on Slater, here is a brief rundown of what happened on Monday, August 9, at JFK International Airport:

After the JetBlue flight landed, one passenger chose to ignore Slater’s announcement to stay seated.  The anonymous passenger stood up, opened the overhead compartment, and accidentally hit Slater in the head with the bag.  Slater asked the passenger for an apology and instead of apologizing, the passenger cussed him out.  So what did Slater do?  He got on the overhead public address system and announced, “To the passenger who called me a ‘m***** f*****,’ f*** you!”  Slater also exclaimed that he is quitting his job after 28 years.  Slater then opened the emergency exit door, grabbed two beers and slid down the inflated ramp on to the tarmac.   He was later arrested at his home.

Currently Slater is being praised as a “working class hero” for his actions that day.  He is receiving lots of support from all over the country and this will probably continue until the media lets this die.  What is amazing is that the overwhelming opinion right now is that Slater did the right thing by taking a stand.  While his actions that day are rather shocking and somewhat hilarious, are his actions really something that need to be praised?  After all, if you were the owner of a customer service related business, wouldn’t you be a little worried knowing that Slater’s actions are being heroically glorified?

I work in human resources and it is my job to help look at customer service complaints to see if they can be validated.  If I am able to validate the claim, most instances of poor customer service warrant some form of disciplinary action.  Since my company usually sides with the customer, employees don’t usually complain about a customer who yelled at them, primarily since they feel it might attract unwanted attention toward their own actions and behaviors.  Granted, in Slater’s situation it can be argued that if anyone should have complained, it should have been him.  Unfortunately for Slater though, he didn’t keep a cool head that day, but he sure went out with a bang.  You have to love the guy for grabbing a couple of beers before exiting the plane via the emergency door.  It really takes some balls to do something like that.

To me, what Slater has done is made us all question whether or not the customer should always be right.  I am one who has to abide by policies that are black and white, so while I am at work, the customer is always right.  However, when I am not working, I don’t have to carry my company’s policies with me, with the exception of a few that I will not bore you with.  In my opinion, I think that customer service needs to go both ways, just like the Golden Rule.  For example, a few weeks ago my parents brought my aunt to town for brunch.  We decided to go to Radio Maria around 12:30PM.  It was relatively busy and they only had a few people waiting tables.  I could tell that the waiter was stressed as he tried to cover a majority of the tables, but he handled himself as calmly as he could.  Even though he got off to a good start, he lost his touch about midway through the meal.  First of all, there wasn’t any silverware and we had to ask for it two times.  When he brought my aunt coffee, he spilled it all over the table and didn’t offer to wipe it up.  Then, when he brought out our food, he didn’t bring my aunt’s plate.  We eventually asked and he quickly apologized, because it had been sitting back in the kitchen.  During this process, each time he came to the table his face showed more and more stress.  He made us feel as if we inconvenienced him to some degree, but we still remained calm and polite.  At the end of the meal, I think he realized that he got a little too stressed out and he sincerely apologized for his subpar service.  We gladly accepted the apology and told him that the meal was still excellent and for him not to worry, because we were still happy.  Even though we probably had every right to complain, it just didn’t seem worth it to us.  We knew that each issue was minor and that it was more important to enjoy our company that to worry about minute details.

Now there are going to be times when we (as customers) run into an employee that is truly rude and/or incompetent.  If that happens, the best thing to do is politely ask to speak with a manager and not fly into some kind of tirade.  Getting infuriated isn’t worth the physical and mental stress.  Typically the manager can help ameliorate the problem and then he or she can have a private discussion with the employee.  Now, if the employee slaps you or insults your mom, then maybe you might want to get the employee fired, but it sure wouldn’t be prudent to retaliate in public.

 Now I do have friends and family who seem to make it a sport to seek out bad customer service and I’m not sure what satisfaction they get from it.  What I mean is that there are people I know who will go to a restaurant and diligently work to find something to complain about.  I even have family members who I absolutely despise to eat with, because they end up sending back everything that comes with the meal.  When I find myself in these situations, I beg them not to act this way for fear of what might happen to my food or drink.  I’ve worked in food service and I know what happens to food once it gets back to the kitchen.  It’s horrifying.  Regardless, when these situations arise, I truly feel sorry for the waiter or waitress.  There are times when I have been so embarrassed and mortified by the behavior of my friends and family that I will actually make an excuse to use the restroom just so I can apologize for them.

Now I’ve never seen an employee react the way that the JetBlue guy did, but if I did, I would probably laugh uncontrollably.  I can see why he is being glorified as a hero, because I have been in situations where I wanted to lay into someone and storm out of my place of employment without looking back.  I just never actually got to that point, plus I’m way too passive aggressive to actually yell at someone when they have pushed me too far.  I typically like to let it marinate in my brain for a few days before I lose control.

In a way, I do admire Slater, but I’m also a little disappointed by his actions.  If I was a passenger on a plane and a flight attendant did what Slater did, I would be shocked, confused and maybe even a little scared.  I hate flying enough as it is.  I’m slightly claustrophobic and my anxiety rises to great heights when I fly.  The last thing I want to happen is to be trapped in a plane on the tarmac as police investigate the impulsive actions of a flight attendant.

As it turns out, Slater has actually been through some rough times lately, but just because life gets stressful at home doesn’t mean that outbursts like Slater’s should be looked over by companies who try to provide customer service.  If you sign up for a customer service role, you should know that the most essential job function is to make customers happy.  My theory is that if someone is that miserable in their job, they should quit, and if they’re going to quit, they need to handle it professionally by giving notice and not by stealing beer while breaking safety violations.  I know that quitting a job in this economy is not easy, but I think it would be better to quit than to do something you might regret later on.

Since I work in HR, my initial reaction to hearing Slater’s story was how in the hell does he plan to get a job after this?  The guy made the national headlines this week as the man who went ballistic and jumped off a plane with two beers in his hands!  I tell you this much, if Slater applied for a job with my company, there’s no way in hell that I would hire him, because if I did, I would probably have to fire him later on for flipping out on someone, and since I work in health care, the last thing I need is someone yelling at a patient and then stealing a bottle of Vicodin for the road.

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