Monday, August 28, 2006

Inhuman Relations


THIS months's winner of the What Were They Thinking Award goes to Northwest Airlines, which offered some helpful suggestions recently to its employees who are being laid off.

Entitled "101 Ways to Save Money," the good folks at Northwest, motivated no doubt by pure paternalistic instincts, advised their soon-to-be-unemployed workers to buy jewelry at pawnshops, auto parts at junkyards and to take shorter showers.

Wait, there's more. The list included asking doctors for prescription drug samples, borrowing a dress "for a big night out" and giving children hand-me-down toys and clothes.

Also suggested: "take a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods," "write letters instead of calling" and "never grocery shop hungry" which seems like odd advice to give the newly poor.

And the capper: "Don't be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash."

Now I understand that most airlines haven't always had warm and fuzzy relations with their employees and that bankruptcy in the industry is as common as lost baggage, but advising your employees to engage in Dumpster diving as a way to make ends meet may establish a new low.

Call it inhuman relations.

To give Northwest its due, the suggestions were prepared for them by an employee-assistance company called NEAS. On its Web site, NEAS describes itself as "people who truly listen, who genuinely care, who are available at all times, and who know how to enhance the lives of employees and support the productivity and profitability of employers."

It sounds more like people who truly and genuinely cooked up some of these ideas over beers after hours.

Nonetheless, the booklet went out with Northwest's stamp on it, forcing the airline to apologize before the ink was dry.

"We do realize that some of the information in there might be a bit insincere and, for that, we do apologize," spokesman Roman Blahoski said.

"There are some tips in there that are very useful and there are some tips that, looking back, were a bit insensitive."

Northwest's senior vice president of ground operations, Crystal Knotek, said in the statement that the company would make sure that "all materials are properly reviewed in the future."

That's the first good idea Northwest has had this month.

Of course, this kind of behavior isn't new in the airline game.

American Airlines several years back set an industry standard for insensitivity when it gave huge bonuses to its top executives shortly after flight attendants, mechanics and pilots had agreed to give back hundreds of millions in salary and benefits to keep the company from bankruptcy.

Chairman and Chief Executive Donald J. Carty would have gotten a $1.6 million bonus, based on his salary of $811,000, presumably for leading his company to the brink of financial ruin.

If that wasn't enough, American kept news of the bonuses a secret from its unions while negotiations over salary and benefit reductions were ongoing.

The resulting outcry forced American to scrap the bonuses.

All of this proves at least one thing: The airline industry is to public relations what Mel Gibson is to inter-faith understanding.

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