Steven Slater: Lunatic or Working-Class Hero?

Aug 16, 2010
Tom Ryan

By Tom Ryan

A JetBlue flight attendant, Steven Slater, became the latest overnight
internet sensation after his dramatic meltdown on a recent flight from Pittsburgh
to New York. But the episode has also sparked a discussion around people’s
frustrations with their jobs in a time of seemingly endless cutbacks.

triggered by one or more rude passengers, Mr. Slater cursed a passenger out
on the plane’s intercom upon landing at JFK Airport before escaping with two
beers down the plane’s emergency slide.

While what provoked his actions is
unclear, the public response to Mr. Slater’s outburst
was swift and widespread. Numerous Facebook pages sprung up, supportive messages
erupted on Twitter, and video tributes have appeared on YouTube. Newspapers
editorial pages and blogs railed against the burden of air travel and the stressful
conditions facing airline employees.

"Almost everyone, especially those who have worked with the public in
a customer service/hospitality/sales clerk position, can relate to that ‘snap’
moment, when something has to give," Jeannine Stein wrote for the Los
Angeles Times
. "Slater pulled his off with flair, achieving what
most stressed workers only imagine doing."

John Challenger, chief executive
officer of Challenger, Gray & Christmas,
a Chicago-based outplacement firm, told Bloomberg Businessweek, "Slater
tapped into a vein of anger that a lot of people have toward their employers.
They are mad about all the layoffs they’ve gone through at work. They are mad
about having their benefits cut."

Airlines, like many industries, are asking
employees to do more in less time amid job uncertainty. At the same time, they
often feel the brunt of passengers’ anger over having to pay higher fares and
losing amenities such as free food.

Some saw the episode as a call for more
civility from over-demanding customers.

"If the attitude is that the customer is always right," Judith
Waters, psychology professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, told the LA
like saying we give you permission to be less than charming."

Others saw
the episode as a warning to companies to take better care of their employees
or expect to see them leave in droves when the job market picks up. Still others
speculated on what it took for the 20-year veteran to move past his boiling

Speaking to the LA Times, Kathleen Shea, a Chicago-based clinical
psychologist who specializes in workplace issues, suspected that the altercation
could have had elements of public humiliation, disrespect and compromised authority.

"This was one more time he tried to handle an unruly, demanding passenger.
It’s like an instructor who is fine for the first three periods telling students
to sit down, but by the sixth period when he’s said it 30 times, he explodes," she

She added that stress-coping mechanisms have their limits.

"There’s a
lot of bad behavior out there today, and I don’t think you can train someone
to be a robot," said Ms. Shea.

Discussion Questions: What lessons did you take from Steven Slater’s meltdown
and the public’s reaction to it? What can retailers do to help customer-facing
employees manage the stress that comes with those jobs?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

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21 Comments on "Steven Slater: Lunatic or Working-Class Hero?"

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Bob Phibbs
10 years 8 months ago

This guy plotted this by his own admission for 20 years. The WSJ has uncovered numerous passengers disputing his story.

He is no hero to anyone. As the facts come up we find an unstable person trying to give the appearance of normalcy in a demanding position.

The antics he used to quit were premeditated. He did not just “snap.” I’m just surprised the jerk didn’t video himself with an iPhone and Tweet about it.

Yes customer service is demanding but let’s not hold this guy up as the canary in the mine. He’s just looking to get on a reality show. Or a beer endorsement while “Take this job and shove it” plays in the background.

David Livingston
10 years 8 months ago

I think everyone has been under that kind of pressure at one time or another. We all deal with this kind of stress in our own way. One thing I would do is to put employees through an exercise where they experience this kind of stress. Then practice and rehearse how they will react.

One time I was next to a passenger on a plane that was acting in a similar manner as in the story. Then right before I was about to clobber him, he admitted he was a “secret shopper” and testing the flight attendant. She handled the situation perfectly and was rewarded after the flight.

Dick Seesel
10 years 8 months ago

I found the public treatment of Steven Slater as a hero to be puzzling: After all, if most of us were passengers on that airplane, we would not have appreciated the sort of erratic behavior that led to his dramatic exit. Granted, those employed in the service industry deal with erratic customer behavior every day…perhaps nowhere more than on a plane. But service associates should aspire to more “grace under pressure,” especially where safety is involved. The customer may not always be right (in the case of the passenger who wouldn’t stay in her seat), but training and professionalism should have been more apparent last week at JFK.

John Boccuzzi, Jr.
John Boccuzzi, Jr.
10 years 8 months ago
The Mr. Slater situation is a shot across the bow for all employers. The economic downturn, price pressures and job cuts have really put a strain on everyone. In this specific case it lets Jet Blue know they need to create other channels and services for their employees to express their feelings and the level of stress they are under. Retailers should take note and nip this in the bud before it happens in one of their stores. On the other side of this story I believe all of us as consumers need to find more constructive ways to share feedback regarding customer service or lack of service. Yelling or giving a flight attendant a hard time during a flight is probably not the best approach to getting the service you hoped for or expected. Why not take a few minutes and write a constructive note to the airline explaining your dissatisfaction and ways they might be able to improve the service in the future? This approach accomplishes two things. 1) It prioritizes the complaint.… Read more »
Joan Treistman
10 years 8 months ago
There would be little if any sympathy, much less support, if a salesperson left their job in an uproar. I can’t equate the service provided by retail employees and flight attendants. Finding an attentive (forget pro-active) retail employee is very difficult. On the other hand we have very demanding expectations of flight attendants. And when we watch them over the course of a flight or two or hundreds we can observe the various challenges they meet and how they deal with them. The support for Steven Slater is linked to our assumptions of what his work life has been these last 20 something years. No matter what the final revelations show us we know that 99.9% of the time he was on the plane serving all the customers (the good, the bad, the ugly) with a smile and a positive attitude. And we know he was trained to do just that. Not for one minute do I believe retailers train their sales people to support their customers in a similar fashion. In that regard retailers… Read more »
Charles P. Walsh
Charles P. Walsh
10 years 8 months ago

I agree with Bob. We cannot view this individual’s actions as indicative of a larger corporate/employee shortfall.

There is never a good reason for an employee to take their frustrations out on a customer. This is not excusing or pardoning customers from their bad behavior either. There seems to be a general erosion in social mores in this country and an acceptance of previously unacceptable social behaviors. That said, employees of service companies must maintain their composure and there is never an occasion in which they can “act out” their frustrations publicly.

If it is OK for a flight attendant to act this way then it should be OK for Mickey Mouse to give someone the finger after the millionth time he has been punched, prodded and spat on, right?

The issue isn’t so much a failure of companies to their employees as a a failure of our society to filter our actions, whether in word or deed.

Rick Moss
10 years 8 months ago

What’s disturbing about this incident is that Slater has broken an age old social contract that customers depend on. Like the first crack in the levee, this could lead to a collapse in the fragile relationship between retail associates and contentious customers. Employers should use the Slater case as an example and make it perfectly clear that the man has not set a precedent for taking matters into one’s own hands.

Max Goldberg
10 years 8 months ago

The world is becoming less civilized. Both salespeople and consumers are under the strain of the sour economy. All are being asked to do more with less. As a result verbal and physical altercations are more frequent. Everyone, employee and consumer alike, needs to take a deep breath before saying words or taking actions that they might later regret.

Joel Warady
Joel Warady
10 years 8 months ago

Let’s keep this in perspective. He became a hero on the Internet, and mostly on Facebook. The Facebook community loves to idolize people who make fools of themselves, and this person certainly did so.

Are we supposed to idolize an employee who takes matters into his own hands, and when he is unhappy with his job, he feels it is justified to vent in public? How is this any different than allowing the same employee to throw coffee on a passenger when the passenger becomes demanding? The fact is, when you choose to work in a service industry, your job is to provide service. And if you don’t like it, you get to quit. But losing control of yourself is not acceptable.

Sorry, nothing about the actions of this individual are worth all of the attention that he received. And JetBlue would have been smart to fire him on the spot. What was their thinking? Now passengers will always wonder how much they need to withstand abuse from JetBlue’s employees.

Ian Percy
10 years 8 months ago

People are ‘melting down’ and so are organizations. And it’s all the same dynamic.

Understanding ‘why’ is critical before jumping into the usual superficial “solutions.” Some things to think about:

1. It is never “sudden.”

2. All meltdowns are the cumulative result of not making a decision(s) that need(s) to be made.

3. Not making a decision keeps both individuals and organizations from seeing the infinite possibilities (purpose and meaning) all around them. They’re starving and there is a buffet in the next room.

4. None of this personal and corporate “drama” is necessary; it is all a self-inflicted wound. We can blame the world around us if we want to but that will just bring you more of the same.

5. None of it will change if we persist in our old ways of thinking. The only way to change our circumstances is to change how we think.

Joel Rubinson
10 years 8 months ago

Nothing new here. Watch Falling Down, or Network. There’s a little bit of that in every one of us. Having said that, this guy was a trainwreck waiting to happen and since I never plan to be a flight attendant but I DO plan to be an air passenger many times, I will not sympathize with this guy one bit, thank you very much!

David Biernbaum
10 years 8 months ago

Steven Slater is enjoying his 15 minutes of fame, and in my opinion the 15 minutes will soon be in the past, and if Slater is lucky he will some day be the answer to a question in a future edition of Trivial Pursuit. But to call him a working class hero is as insane as what he did on that plane. Adversity is part of every job and no one ever said that customer service is easy. But he didn’t do his job. There is nothing heroic about that, is there?

Bill Emerson
Bill Emerson
10 years 8 months ago

OK, so let’s see what’s new in this story. Flying on airlines has become increasingly unpleasant, creating grumpy crowds of unpleasant people. That’s not new. A long-term employee has enough and decides to go out in a childish burst. That’s not new either.

What’s new is that now we have the internet which, with all its incredible benefits, turning this pathetic display into a national conversation and turning this clown into some kind of folk hero for “sticking it to the man” (see, nothing new here).

No one held a gun to this guy’s head to make him do this job. He should be fired.

Mark Baum
Mark Baum
10 years 8 months ago

This is not really about what RetailWire readers/viewers think. Ask yourself, why did this “act” go viral, not just on FB or social media–it made the evening news on the primary networks, discussed on countless cable shows, made the front page of “major” newspapers, etc. Regardless of what we think, this guy tapped something in the current zeitgeist of human relations. Yes, there are implications for employers, employees, customers, consumers, et al–but this is really a reflection of something deeper; the times we live in, the way people feel about themselves and others–scary, if you think about it….

Ed Rosenbaum
10 years 8 months ago
Steven Slater is neither a lunatic nor working class hero. He stands out there now symbolizing the frustration, anger and uncertainty we are experiencing in today’s confusing work environment. Confusing in that we do not know when we leave home for work whether we will return still employed. While I do not agree with what Mr. Slater did as a representative of his airline; I do understand how it can happen. I have flown for business reasons more than I want to admit and have little to show for it but free air miles I am not sure I will ever get to use. During these many flights I have experienced the difficulty flight attendants have to endure when facing sometimes unruly and demanding passengers. I have seen a man refuse to sit next to another passenger because he did not like his appearance. Try as they did, the flight attendants were unable to quiet him. It took air marshalls removing him to get the flight boarded and off to the destination. The real issue… Read more »
Mel Kleiman
10 years 8 months ago

There are two separate issues here and they should be addressed separately.

1. Slater’s behavior was wrong, period. Whatever the cause, he behaved in an inappropriate manner. Forget the customer service role and just think about the role of a flight attendant. Would you want to be on his plane?

2. Job stress and job burn out — yes, they are real problem and in our fast paced pressure cooker world they are not going to go away. Is business doing anything about it? In most cases, NO.

Will they do anything about it? NO; unless it is shown that doing something about it will have a positive effect on the bottom line.

Robert Straub
Robert Straub
10 years 8 months ago

The simple fact is that low wage and hourly wage service industry employees are taking their revenge on rude customers every single day–it’s just usually a lot more subtle than Mr. Slater. If you are rude and/or condescending to waitstaff or retail employees, it has happened to you whether you know it or not.

I believe more of these acts will end up as online content as people weigh the pros and cons of possibly becoming an internet sensation versus losing a low wage, high stress job.

Craig Sundstrom
10 years 8 months ago

The public can’t seem to decide what it wants: some months ago, the world saluted Captain Sullenberger for behaving well under pressure, now it wants to salute someone for NOT behaving well (though admittedly it may not be the same people doing the saluting). And despite the statement of “apparently” being provoked, the details of this incident are still unclear; but no matter: there always have–and always will be–employees who behave unprofessionally, smart employers try to minimize the chances of hiring them. Nevertheless have policies for dealing with it when those safeguards fail.

Kai Clarke
10 years 8 months ago

This man’s behavior is rude, crude and unacceptable. The airline industry is a service industry. It is flight attendants like this man that should never have a job with any airline. They do not respect their customers and have no respect for their job or their employers. It is actions like these that reflect on all flight attendants and make everyone look bad. Goodbye Steven Slater and good riddance!

Doug Fleener
10 years 8 months ago

I find it incredibly sad that so many people dislike their jobs or customers that they relate to this guy. If anyone on a store staff is praising this guy, I’d say that’s your canary in the mine!

Steve Montgomery
10 years 8 months ago

While I can understand his frustration I can not condone his actions. He created an incident that impacted not only the customer he said caused his action, but many, many others.

I think what appeals to many of his supporters is that they too have felt like doing something similar. The difference is, they didn’t and he did. It is unfortunate that people would see him as a hero rather than someone who simply lost control (if indeed he did).

No one questions that people are being asked to do more with less–both the sales associates and the customers they serve. The issue is how best to make this difficult times easier for both. Would be great if I or any of today’s responders had the magic bullet, but we don’t. It takes a lot of effort. One of the best things we can do is to remove as many of the frustrations the staff has that are not customer related.


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