Torqued: Beware What You Put in Writing

 - March 3, 2020, 3:16 AM

Just when you think there isn’t another lesson to be learned from the Boeing 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, along comes a trove of email and text messages from Boeing employees involved in the certification of the Boeing 737 Max that just leave me scratching my head. The messages were handed over to Congressional investigators at the beginning of the year and include over 100 pages of internal documents; most are messages between Boeing employees; but some are between Boeing employees and inspectors at the Federal Aviation Administration. The messages are all archived here if you want to read them for yourselves. These employees were lucky in that their names have all been deleted although some of their job titles have not.  

The messages raise many questions—some about the safety culture at Boeing, the pressure to save money on airline pilot training at almost all costs—but I’m not going to write about that here. What the emails and texts also reveal is a sophomoric humor that may momentarily relieve stress or make you feel clever but do not reflect highly on you or your company when published as headlines in, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post. Or pick your favorite news media since pretty much everyone used lines from these messages in headlines about Boeing.

One of the headlines derived from this trove of documents is this one from the New York Times, Boeing Employees Mocked FAA and ‘Clowns’ Who Designed 737 Max. The subheading is even worse: The company expressed regret at the embarrassing communications it sent to investigators on Thursday, which included a comment that “this airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.” 

Other comments regarding the aircraft and its training program: “this airplane is ridiculous”, “It seems like we’ll never get it right, fix one thing, break three others,” “I’ll be shocked if the FAA passes this turd,” and so forth. You get the picture. I venture to guess that the employees who wrote these message were probably venting frustrations that we have all felt working for large organizations and didn’t really think the aircraft were designed by clowns or supervised by monkeys or that the airplane was ridiculous. I’m sure I have expressed similar frustrations in my past—and in perhaps saltier, hangar-floor language—but it’s unlikely I ever reduced them to writing. Of course, much of my career was spent in the pre-email, pre-instant message and pre-social media days. Who knows what I might have written if I worked for an airline today.

Cooperative Effort Thwarted

But we are where we are. Emails and texts are difficult, if not impossible, to erase and can be dug up years and years from when they were written. And this kind of banter is not how you want to be remembered. The messages denigrate not just the aircraft but also include disparaging comments about the FAA employees who were overseeing the certification of the Boeing 737 Max. In one exchange, employees referred to them as “dogs watching TV.” Another continued by saying, “With all the inexperience present we should be able to gang up on them and steer it the direction we want. We just need to figure out what that direction is.” While there are certainly legitimate questions that can be raised about the knowledge and experience of FAA inspectors overseeing new and complex aviation systems, this kind of mocking in writing is hardly the best way to do it. And actually makes the writers look much more unprofessional than the people they’re mocking. I also can’t imagine what it does to any type of collaborative work environment with FAA regulators now that these sentiments are all over every media outlet. Not a good situation.

And similar derisive sentiments were expressed regarding foreign civil aviation authorities. Again, embarrassing to the company and employees but also feeds into stereotypes about “ugly Americans” having condescending attitudes towards foreigners. Certainly not the best way to encourage foreign entities to buy American products or to do business with American companies.  

These types of messages can do real damage to the company you work for. And in the aviation field—especially after two major accidents and the deaths of hundreds of people—these types of foolish comments can undermine the public’s trust in the aircraft they frequently fly on. In other organizations, say an airline or a repair station, these types of comments becoming public after a major accident or incident would raise similar questions in the public’s mind about the safety and quality of the work performed by that company. 

So, just to be clear. While I am criticizing stupid comments reduced to writing, I am not suggesting that aviation employees avoid putting their concerns in writing. Sometimes, the best way to get action on a problem—especially a safety problem—is to document it in writing. And I know many employees in different industries who have learned that documenting their concerns with data to back them up is an effective way of getting supervisors and managers to take their issues seriously, more so than bringing them up verbally in hallway conversations or even employee meetings. 

But as far as venting frustrations about fellow employees, supervisors, customers or regulators, imagine your email or text in a New York Times or Washington Post headline first. And don’t press “send” if you or your company would not be well-served by your words. That momentary “cleverness” can come back to haunt you even years later. And for those of you who think WhatsApp and other so-called secure messaging apps will keep your words confidential, think again. The messages may be encrypted from third parties, but a party to the messages can always decide to release them, as we have seen in some recent cases that have gotten a lot of media attention. If in doubt about a message, either delete it or wait a day to send it. The reputation you save could be your own.