The View from HR

The View from HR: Employees, managers should view problems as opportunities

CommentaryAugust 24, 2013 

I recently flew through a Washington airport. Gate 35A houses a holding pen for the lucky passengers preparing to board 10 or so commuter flights. From this gate, passengers are funneled to the doors on the lower level, where they then board buses for a short ride to the jet.

The scene I witnessed was both sad and comical: people standing, children complaining to parents, poor signage and unclear processes. Employees behind the counter shouted unintelligibly over loudspeakers, much like a poor quality drive-thru at a burger place. Their tone and body language screamed: “I hate this, you hate this, listen up, and shut up!”

At one point, an employee entered the mosh pit to loudly tell a family they could not stand there and would have to move. Another shouted, “Don’t go down there until your flight is called!” Observers exchanged glances of amazement and wonder. It was a parallel universe of sorts.

I asked an airline employee standing near me – who also was waiting for a flight – if this scene could get any funnier or sadder. He said the only thing sadder was that the airline employees earn about the same salaries they were making 10 years ago.

Poor leadership

Wow! Fortunately, my day was almost over, my flight was on time and I chose to find the humor in it all. The experience, however, left a lasting impression, and I can’t help but reflect on the obvious challenges this workplace presents – and the opportunity for all involved to make a difference.

Where was management? Where was someone who cared about this mess and was willing to try to make it better? Good management identifies and removes hurdles for employees. Because it was clear Gate 35A had operated like this for some time, the flying public can only assume that management simply does not care. Just as important, what do the employees in this situation think of their management?

Where was the customer-focused employee? Employees can act without direction from a manager. Where was the initiative to walk through the crowd and greet confused and frustrated passengers in a helpful way? A simple gesture, such as a heartfelt apology, or a hand-written sign with a simple explanation of what was going on, would have done wonders to diffuse the situation. Instead, three employees huddled together behind the counter, while one barked out garbled messages over the speaker.

What was the bystander employee thinking? The underpaid employee had a chance to help that afternoon. He must have seen and heard the genuine confusion of people new to Gate 35A. If you happened to miss your flight number changing to “Boarding” on the screen – or you didn’t catch the fast-food drive-thru instructions – you were bound to miss your bus and your flight.

Taking initiative

My fellow bus passengers and I discussed what we had just experienced, and came up with a few ideas of our own.

Be the employee who says, “This is painful, and we have to do something.” Do it at the right time, and choose your language carefully. Have the courage to speak with a caring, conscientious manager in a private setting, and describe why the situation must be addressed. Express your concern not only for yourself, but for fellow coworkers, your customers, and the company as a whole.

Be the manager who sees problems as an opportunity to help both customers and employees. When the situation is as dire as what these passengers experienced, the ability to make great strides with relatively little effort, expense or risk seems obvious. So much can be accomplished when a manager takes an interest and gets involved.

So the real question becomes: Are we victims or are we human beings with purpose? As an employee or a manager, you can help create the kind of workplace where problems can be seen as opportunities to make a difference.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is president and CEO of CAI Inc., a human resource management firm with locations in Raleigh and Greensboro. CAI helps organizations maximize employee engagement while minimizing employer liability. For more information, visit

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