United Airlines’ Employment Ethical Dilemma

Introduction

Sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most heinous and underreported crimes in the world. The rising effectiveness of awareness campaigns, the popularity of the #MeToo movement, and the increasing attention from the media and the press have managed to turn the tide and bring about the universal condemnation of such behaviors. Although there are still debates on what constitutes sexual harassment and what does not, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has declared a zero-tolerance policy towards such actions. As it stands, any inappropriate behavior, be it a compliment about a worker’s figure or physique or blatant demand for sexual favors, is considered harassment (Bolden-Barrett).

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While there are no ethical or moral doubts about harassment being evil, the position of organizations in relation to perpetrators remains one of the bigger overarching moral dilemmas. Does an organization bear responsibility for sexual harassment from one or many of its employees? Do employees committing crimes of sexual nature cast a shadow on the organization of their employers? To what degree does the responsibility of the organization before the victim of harassment go? The purpose of this paper is to answer some of these questions from an ethical perspective, using the incident of harassment that happened between Captain Mark Uhlenbrock and a flight attendant Jane Doe of the United States Airlines.

Summary of the Event

The event reviewed in this case study is a story of harassment of Jane Doe, a United States Airlines flight attendant, and Captain Mark Uhlenbrock, who was a pilot in the same company at the time. The two had been engaged in a consensual relationship for four years, between 2002 and 2006 (Aratani). After breaking up, Uhlenbrock used intimate photos he took of Jane during their time together in order to harass her, posting them on the Internet to besmirch her reputation. The woman was trying to resolve the case on her own, which did not work. In 2011, she requested United States Airlines for help, which the company did not provide. After that failed, Jane Doe filed an appeal to the court, this time supported by the EEOC (Aratani).

The pilot did not lose his job until 2015 when he was arrested by the FBI on charges of criminal stalking, which he was found guilty of (“United Airlines – The Not So Friendly Skies”). Now, Jane Doe also files charges against United States Airlines for failing to protect her and, in so doing, encouraging Uhlenbrock’s harassments to continue and escalate. The company promises to vigorously defend the case and repeats that its policies do not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ethical dilemmas presented to the organization are numerous. The first dilemma is to what extent corporate responsibility reaches out towards both the victim and the perpetrator. The company had to determine whether they should or should not intervene in the situation. The second dilemma was whether posting compromising photos and pictures on the worldwide web constitutes sexual harassment. The third dilemma was what the company could do in order to prevent the situation from escalating.

The Organization’s Reactions to the Dilemma

It is hard to estimate the reactions of the United States Airlines, mostly because there had been no reaction to the issue prior to 2015 when the FBI got involved and arrested captain Uhlenbrock for criminal stalking. Up until then, the company was notorious for ignoring Jane Doe’s pleas for help and assistance (Aratani). There are two possible explanations for such behavior. One explanation could be that the company has faulty mechanisms of employee behavior regulation. Reports and feedback about criminal activity such as harassment are filed in written form and lost on the way to the officer responsible for sorting out these cases. That way, the company breaks its own rules of zero tolerance towards sexual harassment in the workplace due to negligence.

The second explanation could be that Jane Doe’s complaints and pleas for help were ignored. In that case, it could be assumed that the company consciously chose that it had no ethical or moral authority to intervene in the situation in any way. According to Mrs. Doe, she was told by the officials of the company that Uhlenbrock’s behavior did not constitute for sexual harassment. Thus, it is safe to assume that the second explanation is the most likely one.

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As it stands, the company has issued a public statement that what happened to Jane Doe was horrible, but they denied the charges of criminal negligence. Likewise, they refused to pay the victim of their purported negligence for years of traumatizing experience. Based on these observations, the company’s ethical framework constitutes the following:

  • The company is not allowed to influence what their workers do in their private lives, as it goes outside of the workplace.
  • The company does not view the posting of compromising imagery as sexual harassment or even as a company issue, since it happens on the Internet, and outside of the workplace.
  • The company does not feel the need or has the capacity to help two of its employees to resolve their differences, nor does it feel the need to protect one from another, since it does not happen in the workplace.

To summarize the position of United States Airlines, the company does not assume any responsibility for the individuals working in its midst and does not intervene in affairs that are considered personal, rather than public.

How the Major Stakeholders Were Affected

In this scenario, there are five major stakeholders. They are the victim, the perpetrator, the company, the public, and the government. In the case of the victim and the perpetrator, stakeholders are singular. In all other cases, they represent a group. In the case of the company, it plays as both the stakeholder and the decision-maker. The positions and effects on the major stakeholders are as follows:

  • The victim. Jane Doe’s position is that she was sexually harassed. She believes that the company is to be held responsible for not acting or responding to her complaints in any way. Her personal security and emotional health were undermined by years of constant neglect, threats, and harassment. The company’s position perpetrates all these notions, denying her justice.
  • The perpetrator. His opinions on the matter are largely unknown and mostly inconsequential. Nevertheless, the company’s position on the matter enabled him to continuously harass Jane Doe for years, before he was stopped by the FBI on charges of criminal harassment. It can be assumed that he approved of the company’s policies since it allowed him to get away with his crime.
  • The company. The company’s standing on the matter is known: it claims to not tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace but feels that whatever goes on beyond that is none of their business. The company has suffered a great loss of face because of such a position, which threatens its dominance in the market. In addition, the company’s reputation among their own employees, who now know that it does not perceive any obligations to protect them from sexual harassment, was damaged.
  • The society. The decisions made by United States Airlines have severe and profound consequences for society. It shows that companies can neglect and deny any and all responsibility before its employees, and it shows that the company in question cares not one bit of what is going on in its walls. It sows distrust toward organizations in general. In addition, the decisions made by United States Airlines have sparked a wave of protest, which would only further empower the movement against sexual harassment and cyberbullying.
  • The government. The government has a duty to protect Jane Doe’s safety, dignity, and rights. The government and its police institutions cannot act first unless the crime is reported. The failure of the United States Airlines to report this act of harassment prevented the government from fulfilling its duties to the victim and society in general. From the government’s point of view, failure to report a crime is a crime of negligence.

As it is possible to see from the analysis presented above, the majority of the stakeholders have suffered from United States Airlines’ decisions. The only person who benefitted from these events was the perpetrator, who continued his harassments unopposed, up until 2015. From a utilitarian point of view, this was an incredibly flawed decision, which brought suffering and inconvenience to many, including the company itself, and benefitted no one.

Personal Opinion on the Situation

My personal opinion on the company’s strange behavior is that its decisions were a mix of prejudice, incompetence, and a desire to avoid any responsibility for the situation transpiring among their ranks. The employees that knew about the harassment likely felt not competent enough to resolve the situation, and would rather push the responsibility on someone else, or they did not care.

The organization, evidently, did not utilize any ethical frameworks in order to inform their decision-making. From the utilitarian ethics perspective, every point of contention indicates that the company should have taken action (Hoffman 34). Based on rights ethics, the company had a duty to protect the rights of the victim and inform the police. In addition, it should have done everything to protect the woman from continual harassment (Hoffman 72).

Kantian deontological ethics state that it is a duty of all people to oppose evil (Des Jardins and McCall 58), in which case it would have been an obligation of every employee in the company to do whatever was in their power to protect Jane Doe from the perpetrator. None of this was done, so I believe that the course of action taken by United States Airlines was unethical by all accounts.

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However, regardless of the overwhelming evidence against United States Airlines, there is a possibility of finding an ethical explanation for such inaction. It could be found in libertarian ethics, which puts the liberty of a person to do whatever they want without much interference from any outside forces. Of course, such a concept does not exclude the concept of justice, which is clearly applicable in this case, but it does significantly limit the ability of organizations to intervene.

Under libertarian ethics, the company has no moral right to interfere in their employees’ personal lives and does not bear responsibility for any damages their employees bring as private citizens (Hoffman 100). If it is decided that the company should intervene, the next question is how far the intervention should go. In order to be able to effectively intercept and prevent various acts of harassment and crime, the company would need to get involved deeper in its employees’ personal lives, have a record of what they say or do both in the workplace and outside of it.

This is already happening, as some were fired for voicing controversial political views in the media, which is far less than what Uhlenbrock is accused of. Therefore, it is very easy to see how demand for corporate action against crimes conducted outside of the working place can translate into the suppression of political views and opinions. At the same time, drawing the line where corporate responsibility becomes an invasion of their employees’ privacy is very hard.

Alternative Responses

There are several alternative responses that United States Airlines could have taken, which would have been more ethical based on the perspective of various ethical frameworks already presented in the scope of this paper. These responses are as follows:

  • React immediately upon receiving Jane Doe’s complaints, and, upon investigating the evidence, firing captain Uhlenbrock and delivering the case of sexual harassment to the police.
  • Assuming that the company failed to immediately respond and protect Jane Doe from the perpetrator, accept the charges of criminal negligence with honesty and humility, make a public apology to the victim, and pay for the psychological damage done to her over the course of these years.
  • Adopt a zero-tolerance policy of any relationships between workers both inside and outside of the company walls. That way, the event of sexual harassment would not have occurred in the first place or would have been punished in a manner similar to the first solution. In addition, the company would not have been liable for the event in any way.

The first solution is the best one, as it adheres to all ethical frameworks the most. Although the company would generate public backlash upon the disclosure of the incident to the media, it would not be immediately associated with it. The desire to help the justice system and accommodate the victim would generate sympathy and result in the least amount of pain possible. From the perspectives of duty and rights, this approach would also be preferable. It does not contradict libertarian ethical views, as the company reacted to the situation rather than interfered in the lives of its employees proactively.

The second approach is the best one for the situation in its current state. Although it could be possible for United States Airlines to use the nuances of the law to not pay the protection money for Jane Doe, it would cause too much damage to the company’s public reputation. Paying the money would be a better way to smoothen the relationships with other stakeholders, and would not look reprehensible from any other ethical viewpoints.

The third suggestion is on uneven moral grounds. Although it would effectively stop sexual harassment and clear up any affiliation between the company and the employees found guilty of such acts, it would also raise a multitude of questions from a libertarian perspective. Such a policy would force the company into the lives of private citizens (Mendl). Since companies are made of people, such access could be abused to persecute people based not on crimes, but on opinions, beliefs, and other matters. It would be dangerously close to Italian fascism.

Effects on Stakeholder Relationships

The relationship between the company and its major stakeholders changed for the worst from all perspectives. The victim now knows that the United States Airlines does not have her best interests at heart, and instead chooses to antagonize her plea. The public is sympathetic to Jane Doe and sees the company as a villain in this scenario. Considering the long list of infractions that the company committed in the last 5 years, it would only add to the mounting body of evidence showing that the company has no corporate or moral ethics whatsoever.

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The relationship between United States Airlines and the government has also soured, as it will investigate all and any complaints about the company with extreme scrutiny. On the inside, the incident with Jane Doe has the potential of launching an internal campaign against harassment and sexism in the office. Chances are that Jane Doe’s story is one of many in the corporation that tries to cover up its issues and hopes that they will simply go away rather than trying to resolve them.

Conclusions

The primary issue of United States Airlines is the lack of an ethical framework in decision-making, from top to bottom. Until the company starts applying ethics in deeds and not just in words, these dilemmas will continue to arise and the company’s relationships with its major stakeholders will be damaged so badly that it will disintegrate. United States Airlines can be used as an example of why ethics in business are important, as without them, the company is prone to making all the wrong decisions.

Works Cited

Aratani, Lori. “Lawsuit: A United Airlines Pilot Repeatedly Posted Sexually Explicit Images of a United Flight Attendant on Various Websites.The Washington Post. 2018. Web.

Bolden-Barrett, Valerie. “What Is an Organization’s Responsibility With Respect to Sexual Harassment According to the EEOC?AZ Central. Web.

Des Jardins, Joseph R., and John J. McCall. Contemporary Issues in Business Ethics. Cengage, 2014.

Hoffman, Michael W., et al. Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality. Wiley, 2014.

Mendl, Mark. “Are Employers Responsible for Protecting Their Employees on Social Media? “Yes” According to a Recent Decision.” Canadian Labor and Employment Law. 2016. Web.

United Airlines – The Not So Friendly Skies.” Whistleblower Law Group. 2018. Web.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, May 30). United Airlines' Employment Ethical Dilemma. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/united-airlines-employment-ethical-dilemma/

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