Happy workers make happy customers. This business adage has been driving a multiyear transformation at United Airlines that’s designed to improve the satisfaction of the company’s 67,000 employees and millions of customers. It’s a major culture change initiative that Kate Gebo, executive vice president of human resources and labor relations, has been helping to lead.
That initiative is important today as flight crews enforce mask mandates and face increasingly unruly passengers. And it gained sudden urgency in 2017 when a passenger was violently dragged off a United plane for refusing to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. A video of the incident went viral and caused a backlash. “That was a turning point for us,” says Gebo, who has served in her current role since December 2017 and has held various other positions at United since 1998.
The incident, Gebo says, “supercharged” United’s commitment to focus on the customer. The best way to do this, it decided, was to turn to its employees. “We went out into our airports and started listening to our employees and talked to them about how we can better serve our customers,” she says. Their feedback shared a common refrain, as summed up by Gebo: “We have all these policies and procedures, but a lot of times they don’t match the situation.”
She concedes, “It was true. Policy doesn’t understand the dynamics of what’s happening personally with someone during a trip.” In the not-too-distant past, for example, if a passenger showed up with a bag that was one pound over the airline’s weight limit, that bag would have been subject to an increased fee. Now, United empowers its front-line workers to override rigid rules on such issues. “It’s about how we can say yes [to customers] as opposed to saying no,” Gebo says.
For employees, this new approach represented a major shift. In 2018, to help workers adjust from working for a rules-based organization to working for one that trusted them to make sound judgment calls, United launched a program called Core4. The program guides employees’ decision-making by asking them to consider whether an action would exemplify the following qualities:
“If you follow those four [guidelines],” Gebo says, “it will be the right decision for the customer and will be supported by all levels of management.”
In 2018, as part of Core4, United required about 30,000 of its employees to take compassion training to improve the airline’s service. The following year, Gebo’s team brought customer-facing workers, including flight attendants and customer service agents, to United’s headquarters to discuss Core4 in person. “It was a chance for them to better understand the business, meet the leaders making these decisions and get us all on the same page,” she says.
In her previous positions at United, Gebo saw how the employee experience is very much entwined with the customer experience. In 2015, after Gebo had spent 17 years in corporate real estate and strategic sourcing for United, then-CEO Oscar Munoz selected her as his chief of staff, a new role she helped to create. In that position, she became familiar with all facets of the company and helped to identify the leadership talent the organization needed. A year later, she became chief customer officer, leading United’s efforts to improve customer satisfaction by increasing employee engagement and empowerment—which ultimately led to creation of the Core4 program.
“We had such great momentum,” Gebo says of the company’s 2018-2019 cultural transformation. In January 2019, the airline announced plans to hire 10,000 people. Indeed, United’s future looked bright.
Then came 2020. “The pandemic hit, and all of a sudden we lost 97 percent of our traffic overnight—literally overnight,” Gebo says. “When your traffic goes down 97 percent and your expenses don’t, that’s a big problem.”
United’s storyline quickly changed. It no longer was a company with a strong growth trajectory; instead, it was one with an intense focus on safety. And that meant Gebo and her 450-member HR team had to communicate thoroughly with employees about a range of pressing concerns: what the airline was doing to keep its workers safe, what information it had on COVID-19 and how it would address the sudden loss of corporate income.
“We had no revenue, and our staffing was not aligned with our schedule at all,” Gebo says.
The airline simply had too many workers and not enough flights. So, the HR team crafted voluntary-separation packages—and about 12,000 employees participated. “It was a win-win,” Gebo says, because the company was able to correct its overstaffing problem and employees could leave the organization or retire if they wanted to. United also avoided implementing long-term furloughs (though it carried out temporary furloughs late last year, Gebo notes).
While United’s management team transitioned to remote work, 90 percent of the company’s workforce consisted of front-line workers who had to be onsite. Early in the pandemic, United provided them with personal protective equipment. The company also offered online mental health services to workers and provided expanded telehealth benefits to all employees, not just those whose benefits plans already covered telehealth.
When vaccines became available early this year, United was ready. “We made sure our teams had access to vaccinations as soon as they could,” Gebo says. That included setting up vaccination clinics for employees at a number of United’s hub airports. In August 2021, United became the first major U.S. airline to require its employees to get vaccinated.
Now, United is once again talking about growth and has added planes to its fleet.
Transparent and Trusted
Gebo’s communication skills have been critical to United’s ability to weather the pandemic, says Nathan Lopp, vice president of corporate real estate at United. “HR communicates in a way that people might not like what’s happening, but they understand it and appreciate the hard decisions needed for the company to survive and thrive,” says Lopp, who has worked for Gebo in previous positions. Today, he says, “when HR speaks, people know they’re getting the truth.”
Gebo has helped transform United’s HR function, according to Lopp. Before, he says, “HR was a reactive organization—one that people saw as something you had to deal with. Now, it’s proactive. HR anticipates needs by knowing the business.”
These efforts have resulted in measurably happier workers: In November 2020, during the thick of the pandemic, United recorded its highest employee satisfaction scores ever.
That level of satisfaction also stemmed from the foundation of transparency and trust that Gebo and other company leaders have been working to build throughout the organization’s cultural transformation.
“It was a combination of not sugarcoating what our situation was, setting expectations about what would happen next, and making sure our team really believed and trusted the plan the management team was putting in place,” Gebo says.
It’s not incidental that “labor relations” is part of her title. “Over the past four or five years, we have made significant progress in our relationship with our front-line team and our unions,” Gebo explains. “I think we have some of the best relationships with our unions in the industry.” As evidence, she points to an agreement the airline negotiated with the pilots union during the pandemic that avoided furloughs and pay reductions.
Gebo developed an appreciation for unions as a young girl growing up in northwest Indiana. Her mother, a teacher, and her father, a steelworker, were both union members.
Her early experiences also planted the seed for her interest in aviation. While her family typically took road trips for vacations, she vividly recalls two childhood plane trips to Disney World in Florida. “I thought that was totally cool,” she says.
Now, Gebo and her husband, John, a finance executive at United, share their love of travel with their 10 nieces and nephews. Each year, the Gebos take the entire crew on a trip. This year, they went to the Bahamas. “We call them the Aunt Kate adventures,” she says.
To lead a diverse group of people—including union members, front-line workers and managers—Gebo says she relies on an agile leadership style. “My approach to leadership really depends on the situation and who I’m interacting with,” she says. With some groups, such as her labor relations team, she takes a more strategic approach, providing high-level guidance on negotiations. With others, like her voluntary-separations team, she takes a more hands-on approach so that even as employees leave United, they feel “they’re still part of the family,” she says.
The HR profession itself will need to be agile in the years ahead as it continues to face ongoing changes in the workplace—like adjusting to the new normal of hybrid work, recruiting on social media platforms such as TikTok and meeting younger workers’ expectations for greater transparency around compensation. HR professionals can no longer “just depend on what we’ve always done,” Gebo says.
Gebo traces her leadership style to something she heard as a fifth grader in Merrillville, Ind., about an hour southeast of United’s Chicago headquarters. She had made her elementary school’s cheerleading squad. “We were going to be a big deal,” she recalls thinking. But her coach gave the squad some homespun advice: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”
“That has stayed with me throughout my entire career,” Gebo says.
Her colleagues note that Gebo’s niceness isn’t just pleasantness; it’s also empathy. Helon
Hammond, United’s managing director of technical operations, has seen that firsthand. In 2020, Gebo became an executive-level mentor for Hammond and supported her work with BEACON, an employee resource group for Black employees and allies.
Hammond has worked in operations at United for almost three decades. “And in that space, I’m often the only woman,” she says. Hammond found she could speak openly with Gebo about that and other professional challenges. “I’m very guarded and not always vulnerable, but Kate created a space for me to be myself and be transparent, and that was something I had never really experienced,” Hammond says. “I always left feeling heard.”
Lopp observed the same quality when he reported to Gebo. “Kate is somebody you want to work with because of who they are,” he says, “not because of the title.”
Novid Parsi is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.
Photos of Kate Gebo by Jeff Dahlgren.