CHICAGO —“People matter.” It’s a common cliché among HR professionals, but at United Airlines the head of HR serves a vital and growing function for the Fortune 100 company, CEO Oscar Munoz said on Monday at the annual SHRM 2018 conference in Chicago.

The Chicago-based U.S. airline carrier named Kate Gebo as executive vice president of Human Resources and Labor Relations late last year, a position that is equal to the president, CFO, chief technology officer and other C-Suite level positions in the company’s leadership team, he said, signaling HR’s expanded role in the changing workplace.

“It’s important to really quickly think about the evolution of who you are as HR, and the responsibility that comes with it,” Munoz said. “It’s a big responsibility. That seat at the table which we all so want… that prospect of where HR is headed to be truly a permanent part of the table is a valid one, a real one, and you just have to keep pushing at it.”

A record 22,000 participants gathered at the largest conference of HR professionals, an indication of the widening interest that corporate and government employers have in the evolving workplace — and the challenges executives have in managing those changes.

Among top themes at this year’s gathering include the role of technology in benefit offerings, workplace diversity, the #MeToo movement and succession planning, participants said.

United itself is recovering from a challenging year, in which the company suffered several black eyes, starting with the April 2017 incident when a passenger was dragged off an overbooked domestic flight by aviation officers. This spring a passenger’s puppy died after a passenger was forced to place the pet in an overhead bin during a Houston flight to New York.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., speak at the association's annual conference in Chicago.
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz and SHRM CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., speak at the association's annual conference in Chicago. Photo by Anne Ryan for SHRM

Munoz said the company’s guiding principles include safety, open communication and efficiency, along with having rules and procedures that help guide those principles.

Still, “we have to be infinitely more flexible,” he said, noting they have had several key learning points from their challenges last year.

SHRM President and CEO Johnny Taylor Jr. noted United’s new lottery bonus system that caused employees to “freak out.”

United President Scott Kirby launched an unpopular plan for a lottery bonus system to reward high performers, but the system was scrapped in April in favor of a team-based incentive system after employee feedback found that individual rewards were less popular than quarterly cash bonuses to all employees who helped the company achieve wider targets.

“It was a perfect case where we didn’t listen effectively,” Munoz said. “We were trying to enhance the system,” and “spice it up,” he said, but following the employee feedback, the company quickly reversed course, he said.

The 10%

For the 130,000 employees at United, Munoz noted that his leadership team strives to be “profitable and principled.” To drive change it is necessary to build the right culture, he said.

Munoz, who became CEO in September 2015 after running freight rail company CSX, said in any large organization, 10% of the people are not going to like you, 10% will love you, and the 80% in the middle are looking at which of the two 10 percents to follow.

HR’s role is to constantly listen and learn from employees and to instill a sense of shared purpose and vision for where the company is heading.

“What you hope to happen at any conversation at that water cooler, is when you have that 10 percent who are negative, and they start their negativity, there’s someone in the middle [who says] I want to move forward,” he said. “Life is just way too damn short to be miserable.”

Workers also are increasingly working in a connected and transparent world. HR professionals need to remember to focus on personal interactions with both clients and colleagues to be effective, he said.

“Don’t forget the human element,” he advised.

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