American Airlines Fires Web Designer For Helping Customer

Dustin Curtis complained to American Airlines about its poor website user interface. A designer within the company reached out to him to apologize, say how it was hard sometime to design well at a large company, but that better designs were coming down the pike. American Airlines then fired the designer. Authenticity can be a hazard to your job health.

The Incompetence of American Airlines & The Fate of Mr. X [Dustin Curtis via TechDirt] (Thanks to Peter!)> (Photo: nffcnnr)

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  1. Awjvail says:

    Well it’s possible that by saying that better designs were coming he breached some kind of NDA or something…

    • yesteraeon says:

      @Awjvail: Even if that is true, it may have given AA the legal RIGHT to fire the employee, but by no means an OBLIGATION to do so. And it certainly doesn’t mean it was either a good idea, or the right thing to do.

    • Charlotte Rae's Web says:

      @Awjvail: But there are ALWAYS new designs in the works in big company dev groups. Something is always on the drawing board so this was just a generic comment in my eyes.

      • Cyberxion101 says:

        @Charlotte Rae’s Web: No doubt. His comment came across the same way to me as well. No details were shared, so I can’t imagine that this is an NDA issue.

        I think AA didn’t like the fact that he said that it was tough to design well at a large company. Perhaps they thought that put the company in a negative light or something silly like that. @_@

    • cowboyesfan says:

      @Awjvail:

      Now you understand why most employees in the airline business prefer to belong to a union.

      • RedwoodFlyer says:

        @cowboyesfan: And this is why we in management don’t like the unions. If an employee does stuff like this, we have every right to boot them and hire someone who has positive feelings about his job.

        You basically proved the main problem with unions: immunity from being fired. This is grossly unfair to anyone with a decent work ethic who actually works hard.

  2. iron_chef says:

    I guess they are paranoid because sometimes that kind of leak puts the company in jeopardy for insider trading info.

  3. wrjohnston91283 says:

    How did he “help” the customer? The customer complained about the website, and the designer said “you’re right, out site is awful, and i’m going point fingers at everyone”.

    I’m not saying that the guy was wrong, but large companies have communication departments for this very reason. They don’t want all the employees reaching out to the public and telling them the inner workings on the company. They want to be able to tell a single story.

    • crosenblum says:

      @wrjohnston91283: And that’s how you destroy loyalty, people who work the web, are proud of their work, and corporate culture works hard to destroy that, make them nothing but paid cog’s.

    • That's Consumer007 to you says:

      @wrjohnston91283: Oh that’s right, being human isn’t allowed any more. We must always make sure customers get an uncaring, unfeeling, sanitized CORRECT response that leaves them empty handed.

      And yes PR departments are there to make sure the company looks good while it buttfucks paying customers so the denial can continue unabated and the majority of customers can feel good about being abused.

      I hope he sues and wins.

      • Dunkelzahn says:

        @Areyouagoodlittleconsumer:

        AHAHA! Sues and WINS???

        You must have had some old food for breakfast, because the bacteria is affecting your brain.

        This guy used his company email address to write to a blogger and basically slander his employer. Not only did he more than likely violate a NDA, he portrayed the company he works for in a negative light.

        Read his letter before making claims. He got what he deserved. Period.

  4. gparlett says:

    Welcome to corporate America, this crap happens everyday. I had a friend get fired for referring to his boss as ‘mean’ on his blog, neither the boss or the company was ever identified by name anywhere on the blog.

    • AstroPig7 says:

      @gparlett: Managers like that don’t deserve their positions. If your ego is so fragile that you can’t take anonymous criticism, even if someone else has to tell you about it, then you should never be put in charge of anyone.

  5. subtlefrog says:

    What’s funny is that I read this as explaining – look, you moron, the website isn’t a small project that we can simply redesign as you describe. The OP thinks it’s simple enough to redo it, and Mr. X. says , um, no, it isn’t – and here’s why. Though it’s a bit nicer than I would have been, I guess.

    • richcreamerybutter says:

      @subtlefrog: not to mention, there are always non-web savvy people in charge who seem to be making the final decisions. They then want to apply print rules and their own design edits which results in a site that looks like ass.

  6. bohemian says:

    The process most dysfunctional companies use to deal with their web sites is usually even more dysfunctional than the rest of the company. Mostly decision by committee and that committee is made up of the Luddites in management.

  7. Radi0logy says:

    A couple of years ago I was doing tech support, and the customer complained to me about our return policy. I said I agreed with them that the policy wasn’t perfect, but was necessary etc. Didn’t realize the owner was behind me, man was he pissed off. Apparently empathizing with the customer is bad customer service. Almost got fired.

    • Dunkelzahn says:

      @Radi0logy:

      Empathizing is okay; Portraying your company or any of it’s policies or anything else about them in a negative light is not. No matter how terrible you think the company you work for is, or how quirky their policies can be, you are a representative of the company. If you disagree with anything having to do with them, it has the chance of losing a customer.

      No offense, but I would have fired you.

  8. PsiCop says:

    I wouldn’t say that Mr X (the Web designer) really “helped” the OP other than to explain why AA wasn’t going to use his mock-up and why it wouldn’t be as easy as he thinks just to change the AA Web site.

    That said, I don’t get the extreme measure of firing him over this. At worst all Mr X did was to say that AA has a hidebound culture that makes innovation difficult. This is not an uncommon thing in large corporations, particularly ones the size of AA. Anyone who’s read Dilbert knows this sort of thing happens all the time and that it’s everywhere. So I don’t see how this could be viewed as a such a startling revelation that Mr X needed to be fired over it. Reprimanded maybe, but fired?

    That said, the OP was pretty foolish to spend time on a mock-up and tell AA they had to use it. I mean, seriously. It’s one thing to take user feedback and look into customer suggestions. It’s another for a customer to decide unilaterally to redesign an entire Web site and to assume the authority to implement it, merely because he thinks it’s better.

    Sheesh.

    • Dondegroovily says:

      @PsiCop: Firing anyone who dares criticize the company is part of the hidebound culture.

    • ktetch says:

      @PsiCop: I’d say Mr X helped him.

      Basically he helped the kid understand that working at a big company isn’t like doing the school website, and that for the businesses of your friends families.

      The kid’s what, 22. I doubt he’s EVER worked for a company with 30+ employees. Probably never done anything but freelance. Mr X helped this ‘Denis’ understand that he knew squat about how businesses work.

      • absentmindedjwc says:

        @ktetch: Age doesn’t mean shit. I am only 24, yet I have a job as an Applications Developer for a major media company with over 21 thousand employees.

        • ktetch says:

          @absentmindedjwc: And when I was 21, I’d been employed as a senior technical advisor on a TV show that had half the DARPA grand challenge teams on it, and had just fininshed working on a classified robotics roject.

          I understand your point. However, reading the guy’s posts, and looking at what he’s done, I stand by my point.

  9. Sanspants says:

    I think we should give Mr. X the key to the city.

  10. bonanz says:

    This is one of the few times on this site that I have to side with the corp. *GASP*
    Obviously the blog that originally did the redesign is a young kid and I’m sure unaware of how large corporations operate with regards to public communications.

    He even lists the email from the UX developer as “AA responds” implying (unwittingly) that this was some sort of response from AA corporation as a whole. I’m sure aside from NDA, AA has policies in place about speaking to “media” on behalf of AA, and I’m sure they have some policy about tweeting/bloggin etc.

    Nothing really interesting here. IMO the UX guy messed up and AA exercised their right. And I can’t really blame them.

    I don’t even really buy that the guy was trying to offer “customer service.” It really seems like he just got burned up by some kid’s blog comments, and couldn’t hold back from responding and defending his personal work, and in turn sort of knocking the AA corporate environment for the website…then he gave the OK to post it…This is one of the first times on consumerist (detailing a “negative”) that I don’t disagree with the companies actions.

    • AK47 - Now with longer screen name! says:

      @bonanz: I’ll side with AA too. Mr. X essentially posted a “AA sucks!” e-mail in public space, and most companies will readily fire you for that. Mr. X was just more eloquent than most people.

      If you have a problem with your company culture, do you really think airing it on a small-time blog is the best course of action? Will it result in any changes? No. Will it cause problems for you? Clearly yes.

      It would have been a different story if Mr. X had simply said, “We know our site has issues, and we’re working on them. In a big corporation, that can take time.” Instead, he chose to point fingers at every department in the company and say why they were each messing up the site.

      Public company bashing = got fired. Makes sense to me.

  11. ecwis says:

    That’s kind of mean to post the email online.

  12. Darkneuro says:

    The moral of today’s story should be “Don’t piss in your company’s pocket because NDAs do work and are enforceable”.
    As far as the complainer goes, he didn’t just complain about the interface, he submitted his own interface. EVERY corporation I’ve ever worked for has its own form of a little disclaimer basically saying “No unsolicited suggestions regarding anything will ever be taken by anyone”. He shouldn’t have even bothered.

  13. ShiningSquirrel says:

    I don’t see the problem. I do web development and design where I work. I do NOT respond to any outside customers for any reason. It’s not my job.
    If the e-mail the webmaster (my manager) he responds, that’s his job to interact with the public. There are rules in place at most companies for a reason.
    This guy broke the rules, knew he was breaking the rules as he wanted his identity hidden, and was fired for it. He was NOT helping a customer, if anything he was helping someone who was criticizing the company he worked for, showing no loyality.

    BTW, LOVE the way he ended the email.

    “Very truly yours (and hoping I don’t get fired for being completely incompetent),”

  14. elizass says:

    He breached an NDA. I would have fired him to.

    Good job making a story out of nothing yet again.

    • Buffet says:

      Sounds grossly unfair. “Too is spelled with two ‘o’s you moron. I wouldn’t work for a moron in the first place, but if I did, you’d get the ass-whoopin’ of you life if you tried to fire me. My outrage is fueled by your casual use of the term ‘fired’. Releasing someone from their job is a very serious action in today’s economy – not to be taken lightly. People have families and responsibilities. No, I haven’t been fired, and I don’t have a family. It just pains me to see those who do. So next time, think before you shoot your mouth off, Mr. illiterate, spelling bee failure sissy.

  15. tundey says:

    I think Mr X had to have known he was going to get some blowback for his actions. Maybe firing him was harsh since all that’s done is bring more publicity to the whole event. But he must have known he was crossing the line.

  16. mariospants says:

    This is all the more reason to start your own airline.

  17. El_Guapo says:

    Mr. X was fired for a number of gross violations. He detailed the inner workings of a process that AA feels is proprietary to them – that is, designing and incorporating a customer experience into their website. He doesn’t give every gross detail, but to me, it seems he told way more than anyone probably should.

    Two – It’s not his job to engage directly with a customer. He may be the person who receives the feedback, and works to design around that feedback, but it’s not his job to directly talk with a disgruntled customer. His job is to design the site, period. There are public outreach departments that spend minutes, maybe even hours sending out pre-canned, un-authentic messages to those unfortunate enough to fly on AA, and voice their discontent.

    All that being said, AA wasted a valuable asset and opportunity. Mr. X obviously cares about his work, and cares enough to send a genuine, heart felt message to a customer (and fellow web designer). In the end, it’s easier for AA to callously throw Mr. X under a bus and hire a new UX designer, than gently reprimand and encourage a motivated customer-centric individual. I guess that’s why AA is a failing business, who frankly, wouldn’t be missed.

    • bonanz says:

      @El_Guapo:

      I honestly feel like the tone of mr x’s response had nothing to do with caring about the customer or whatever. It was a prideful, although eloquent, “hey it’s not my fault, i’m good” kneejerk response to someone’s criticism…

  18. dancing_bear says:

    There has to be more to this story.

  19. Nighthawke says:

    Mr. X Just got an offer from Sears/Citibank to join their ranks in the blog.

    Also a posting from a shareholder chastised AA for their lack of poor judgment.

  20. AngryK9 says:

    Unfortunately, a corporate web designer usually is not a customer service rep. That said, it makes sense that he was terminated for breach of NDA.

  21. ecvogel says:

    Some companies make you sign something you are not gonna talk bad about them, pass on confidential info or talk about policies. I you do it could be a verbal warning, write up or termination and can jump to which ever step they choose.

  22. gggtur says:

    Dear Southwest Airlines:
    Please start flying to every airport in the world so that I can use you guys exclusively!

  23. TessTalks says:

    American Airlines is pathetic.

  24. ibelli says:

    The guy could have had a long track record of BS within the company. There are a lot of things that we don’t know. That being said, I don’t think he breached any NDA, unless the NDA was to keep “secret” the fact that the AA site is garbage, which it is. If anything, he was putting the company in a good light.

  25. dreamfish says:

    @Cant_stop_the_rock: Yes he did authorise DC to post it.

  26. NeverLetMeDown says:

    @Cant_stop_the_rock:

    “I am republishing it here with permission from him, but he did ask that his name and some other minor details be withheld.”

  27. NeverLetMeDown says:

    @Cant_stop_the_rock:

    According to Dustin, Mr. X explicitly authorized him to post the email, removing only his name.

  28. ohenry says:

    @Cant_stop_the_rock: I’d agree with this as being the reason. While not for a technological part of the company, I answer the inquiry emails that come through our comany’s website too. In general, in responses, you have to remain polite, professional, relatively impersonal (a little flair here or there is OK, but no personal information) and concise. Not only were those comments unncessary to answering the email, they had a sense of complaint to them. I know I wouldn’t have gotten away with an email like that either, though I don’t know if I’d be fired for it.

  29. Cant_stop_the_rock says:

    @NeverLetMeDown:

    My mistake, I only read the actual letter and didn’t see the permission granted in it. This Mr. X is a Mr. Moron.

  30. Cyberxion101 says:

    @AK47: Oh, I don’t find it hard to believe that he got fired for a one-off offense. It happens, and generally companies tend to take NDA breaches very seriously.

  31. coren says:

    @elizass: Good, they can fire Ben too.

  32. Cant_stop_the_rock says:

    @coren:

    Actually they could sue Ben for libel.

  33. coren says:

    @Cant_stop_the_rock: I very much doubt it would do any good.

  34. yesteraeon says:

    @floraposte: Well that’s interesting (honestly), but it missed the point of my post. Which was, regardless of their legal rights, we can still ask and debate whether they OUGHT to have fired the employee.