Where are your grey areas, asks Bob Morrell, managing director of Reality Training

A wealthy passenger walks onto a plane heading for a long-haul destination. He is booked into economy, and watches first-class passengers heading for their additional comfort. He decides, on a whim, to upgrade. He approaches a steward. ‘Hi, I’d like to go into first class, and I’m happy to pay cash for the upgrade – how much is it?’ The steward thinks for a moment – he knows there are spare seats in first class. ‘It’s £1500 for the upgrade.’ – ‘That’s fine’ says the customer ‘here’s the cash.’

The steward goes to two colleagues. ‘Want to make an easy £500?’ ‘Yes, of course’ they reply. ‘Then escort this customer into first class and I’ll split the £1500 cash he’s just given me, with you.’

The customer goes into first class, has a pleasant flight and goes home.
The three stewards share the cash and get on with their lives.

So Question one is – Where’s the harm? The seat was empty anyway, the cash was the customer’s own and no-one is any the wiser for this transaction. Of course, the airline missed out on the upgrade money, but then, if the customer hadn’t asked then they wouldn’t have had it anyway. The crime is undiscoverable because whilst money exchanged hands, no paperwork did.

The customer would also have been ‘none the wiser’ had he not decided to contact the airline and asked if they had received the £1500 he had paid in cash.

An investigation is launched and the three stewards are dismissed for gross misconduct. Question two is, should all three have been dismissed? For the two stewards who were informed, the decision was really made for them by the first, wasn’t it?

What I love about this story is the simplicity of the dilemma. We can all take the high ground and say, ‘no way – we’d have either reverted to a process, or informed someone officially.’ At the same time, when faced with an easy £500, on the spur of the moment, how many of us would take the risk?

The problem with upgrades is that they are either sold or not, offered for free occasionally, or given to staff or suppliers as perks. Should airlines incentivise staff to upsell and offer them a commission? Should upgrades be auctioned rather than sold?

So the final question is; can morality be trained? On certain questions yes it can – on questions like this how could you train it? You could tell people what they should do in these situations, and they can agree that they will never consider such actions. But in reality, in the heat of the moment, with an inclination of the head, in collusion with a superior, are we all able to be so certain?

Many people collude with customers, against their own company, either unconsciously through received behavior ‘yes, I agree our internal system works against you and I don’t agree with it’ or consciously through being told by a superior that it’s okay; ‘tell them you’re checking with me, then offer a discount’. Without process and structure there are grey areas in every business – where are yours, and what dilemmas are you asking your staff to consider?