Let’s talk about EVA Air and the American passenger who bullied and sexually harassed flight attendants on January 19, 2019.
In case you missed it, there’s been international coverage this past week on CNN, The Straits Times, Daily Mail, Business Insider, USA Today and NBC News in Los Angeles, to name a few. There have been reports the EVA Air flight attendant who spoke out at the press conference is on sick leave and undergoing therapy.
By the time this incident blows over, EVA’s reaction should go down as a case study of how Taiwanese companies should absolutely not react in a crisis. So what can we learn about Taiwanese corporate culture from this PR dumpster fire? A few things come to mind:
1. Customers come first. Company comes second. Employees come last.
EVA has said the flight attendants knew they could say no to his demands, but agreed out of a “spirit of service”. Here’s an excerpt from EVA’s press release to media on January 23 describing previous incidents with this same passenger:
“On a flight from TPE to BKK in 2018, it was reported that the passenger asked the crew members to assist in cleaning his urine bottle. Although the Thai flight attendants knew that they were not required to assist him in cleaning the container, they were willing to wear gloves and helped him out of the spirit of service.”
With this press release, EVA pretty much threw their flight attendants under the bus and said, “not our fault.” EVA is also displaying a consistent and egregious lack of concern for cabin hygiene and safety. How is it acceptable for a passenger to use a urine bottle in his seat, let alone ask flight attendants to clean it? How is that not a major hygiene fail?
Flight attendants are handling food and beverages for hundreds of people. The hygiene standards for food safety are pretty much thrown out the window when cabin crew is also handling urine bottles, no?
2. Sexism is not a problem. It’s their business strategy.
This whole incident could probably have been avoided if there was a male EVA flight attendant on board the flight. It’s hard to imagine the passenger would’ve begged a male flight attendant to wipe his ass so many times.
However, the shocking fact is EVA doesn’t have any male flight attendants. This was confirmed when I asked a male EVA employee who contacted me via Instagram. The EVA employee said, “I really don’t know why we only hired females for our cabin attendants.” This isn’t an oversight. According to their company profile, EVA counted 4,389 flight attendants on staff in Dec 31, 2018.
Sexism isn’t the only issue, however. The vast majority of EVA flight attendants are under 30 years old, and the senior crew member who spoke at the press conference was only 31 years old herself.
From EVA’s 2017 Corporate Social Responsibility report: 1,005 new female employees were hired in positions throughout the company, both on the business side and for the flight crew. Only one new employee fell in the 50 or older category. Just 24 employees were aged between 30 and 50. The rest, or 980 new employees, were all aged 30 and under.
That means 97% of new female hires at EVA in 2017 were under 30 years old. In 2016, it was 97% too.
EVA is clearly very comfortable with objectifying their young, all-female cabin crew, as evidenced by the front cover of their 2017 Annual Report where staff are described as “Exquisite, Vibrant, Attentive” while dusting and spraying perfume.
3. Harassment is not clearly defined and it’s rarely reported.
When the EVA employee contacted me through Instagram, we discussed the incident in terms of flight safety and hygiene. I also brought up sexual harassment since the passenger’s behavior was clearly lewd and the cabin crew was an all-female team. The employee’s response: “But they didn’t take into account this is sexual harassment”.
EVA has only had a formal Sexual Harassment Prevention & Control policy since 2015. According to EVA CSR reports for 2015 and 2016, there were zero reports of sexual harassment both years. In 2017, there was just one. This suggests a workplace culture where sexual harassment is not clearly defined, and where employees are afraid or not encouraged to report.
Sexual assault and harassment is also an in-flight issue for passengers. The FBI reported in June 2018 that reports of in-flight, passenger-on-passenger sexual assaults are occurring at an “alarming” rate. If EVA management can’t identify cases of sexual harassment against its own staff, how would it train its employees to see harassment against other passengers during flights?
Another incident that occurred on January 19 is also very telling. EVA received an anonymous letter on January 18, 2019 claiming one of their flight attendants had appeared in a porn video. (It wasn’t her.) Instead of starting an internal investigation into why this employee was being targeted, the flight attendant was grilled for three hours by supervisors.
She was made to watch the video and answer questions about her personal life and dating history, then forced to write a statement that she would never do anything to “hurt the company’s reputation”. This incident was made public anonymously by the EVA flight attendant herself.
4. An obsession with winning awards and high scores.
Through their press releases so far, EVA shows signs of a corporate culture that values customer service above employee well-being, and encourages their employees to sacrifice themselves at the risk of losing customer service points. Apparently this is all in the “the spirit of service”.
Since joining the Star Alliance network in 2013, EVA has been all about its safety and service rankings and industry recognitions. You can see the awards starting in 2014 on the Company Profile page of its website. And since compiling and releasing CSR reports in 2013, EVA’s annual customer satisfaction targets have gone up year over year, as have the reported results.
Below are screenshots of customer satisfaction data from EVA CSR reports from 2013 to 2017:
Each year the target goes up by a few points, and the score is always higher than the target. Note: There are two errors in these graphs where the numbers don’t match up for 2014 and 2015.
Each year’s score is also higher than the previous year’s. The only time the score hasn’t been higher than the previous year is last year, 2017, when it remained 4.34 points. This makes me curious what the 2018 CSR report will show for the customer satisfaction target. Will it stay at 4.32 or will it raise to 4.34? Is it even possible for EVA staff to keep getting higher scores? And god forbid what happens if the service score is lower than the target?
This score-obsessed culture is reminiscent of the traditional education system in Asia where exams and grades matter more than anything else. It’s not good enough to get an A. You have to place top of your class. The question is: are service awards and scores more important to EVA than the well-being of their people?
5. Inability to manage negative press or scrutiny.
Since the press conference by the EVA flight attendants on January 19, EVA has been trying very hard to downplay the problem in the hope it’ll blow over like a fart in the air. Their first response was a statement posted in Simplified Chinese on EVA’s page on Weibo. Then they posted the same statement in Traditional Chinese as a comment to this post on EVA’s Facebook page which has since received 850 comments. The issue didn’t even warrant its own Facebook post!
After that, the company went dark for a week as EVA customers (myself included) left comments asking when they would be banning the passenger. The US-based @evaairus Twitter and Instagram accounts have both been silent since January 20. (They’re probably managed by the same people.) However, the global Instagram account @evaairways started posting again three days ago, cheerfully responding to positive comments while ignoring all negative comments related to the incident.
EVA’s PR people have also been on lockdown. I tried to find names for their PR team in Taoyuan, but came up empty. Then I emailed one of their overseas PR consultants. I was given the email of Larry Lai [firstname.lastname@example.org] whose inbox was set to respond automatically to my message with this: “I am currently not available to reply. In need of urgent matter, please contact another duty officer.”
I also contacted Leo Song [email@example.com] in the PR department and Gary Huang [firstname.lastname@example.org], a VP in the customer service department in California. Neither have responded.
It’s clear: EVA is not equipped to deal with negative press and mass customer dissatisfaction.
Maybe Korean Air serves as a good parallel. Remember the “nut rage” incident from 2014? The male flight attendant who went to the media was demoted by the airline. He sued Korean Air for this as well as “physical and psychological suffering” and won his case in December 2018. The “nut rage” daughter of the Korean Air chairman was found guilty of violating airline safety laws and served 5 months in jail before being transferred to another part of the family company. She was fired from that role in April 2018 and the chairman issued a formal apology to employees and the public.
Meanwhile, we wait for word from EVA about whether the passenger will be allowed to fly his May 17 ticket, and whether he’ll be banned from future flights. For an airline that takes so much pride in its awards, its rankings and doing things the right way, I really hope EVA will pull through and finally do the right thing by its people and customers.
Update: he died before the return flight anyway.
Since casual sexism is very much a thing in Taiwan, there have also been people dismissing what the flight attendants went through. To those people, let’s discuss:
Is what happened really sexual harassment?
Yes. During the flight, he coerced members of the all-female cabin crew to pull down his underwear and wipe his butt. He exposed his genitals and slapped a flight attendant’s hand away when she attempted to cover his groin with a blanket. Then, he moaned “deeper, deeper” while the FA wiped his butt, and threatened to faint if she didn’t do it again. You can see the full list of his demands here.
We also know he used the bathroom unassisted in the airport when male ground staff offered to help him in the toilet. And he has a history of belligerent and threatening behavior with sexual undertones. Flight attendants have reported he has peed in his seat, shat his pants and demanded female flight attendants wipe his crotch when he spilled juice on himself, insisting they “would do a better job”.
But the female cabin crew could’ve said no. Aren’t they trained to refuse?
They did say no. Repeatedly. But in the end they had to say yes. Why? Because he threatened to sit in the Business Class toilet for the entire flight if they didn’t comply. He was seated in Premium Economy. For his own safety and the convenience of the Business Class passengers, they needed him to go back to his seat. Another important factor is his size. This was a 200kg (440 pound) man versus a team of women who probably weigh around ~50kg each. It was dangerous for the flight attendants to prop him up in a confined space.
Didn’t the pilots help out?
Yes. But according to reports, they only moved him to the bathroom. They didn’t go into the toilet. (I’m guessing EVA wouldn’t publicly admit to their pilots wiping passenger’s asses.)
So why has this situation dragged on?
Because EVA’s response has been so terrible and tone-deaf that EVA employees have resorted to leaking information to the press. The first leak revealed he is booked on another flight on May 17. Then a second whistleblower came out to say he was already flagged as someone who needs to fly with a caretaker or nurse and also medical certificate. But due to a ticketing loophole in EVA’s system, he has still managed to avoid those requirements.
It appears EVA knows they are at fault but they aren’t willing to admit it. Instead, the PR response has been to gaslight their own employees, then hope the public outrage fades and the press moves onto something else.
EVA’s handling of the incident was shameful. The corporate culture there used to be very hierarchal (not sure if it still is, though). In my experience companies like this A) hate employees going around established channels and B) don’t know how to handle modern PR crises, and are likely to make a bad situation even worse.