How United Airlines supports the ‘employees of tomorrow’
United Airlines has been flying the ‘friendly’ skies since air travel became a reality in the 1930s. Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the airline flies to over 300 destinations across the globe daily and employs over 100,000 people worldwide.
And the airline’s employees are key to its success. United has established a culture of winning and one that ensures all of its employees can bring their authentic selves to work in a way that is diverse, equitable and inclusive.
As an example, for the LGBTQ+ community, United established a business resource group (BRG) called EQUAL.
“We’re committed to developing, building, fostering and promoting an inclusive organisation that benefits all LGBTQ+ co-workers and allies,” says Mike Henning, United Airlines’ associate general counsel international and president of the EQUAL BRG.
With a total of nine chapters and over 5,800 members across the globe, Henning says that EQUAL provides “philanthropic, educational, professional development and networking opportunities for employees to become more well-rounded individuals, both at United and within their community.”
‘It’s a great opportunity to help those in most need’
For Henning, who has been EQUAL’s president since 2022, the role is just as important as his day-to-day duties managing the airline’s legal affairs outside the United States.
His dedication and commitment to DE&I originated from his experiences growing up in rural Kentucky. After coming out in his mid-20s, Henning quickly realised that he wanted to help people, in part due to the isolation he felt as he was coming to terms with his authentic self.
“I didn’t have a lot of resources on who I was, and so it was a journey trying to understand more about who I am and who I was going to be,” he tells PinkNews.
It was during this time that Henning contemplated a career in law, because, as he puts it: “It is a great opportunity to be able to help those in most need – those who are part of underrepresented communities.
“It was very important for me early on in my career to be able to engage in pro bono and community service efforts.”
Henning says that he spent time volunteering to help LGBTQ+ youth through community service.
He acknowledges that historically, the legal industry has moved a bit slower than other industries regarding DE&I initiatives.
Since landing at United Airlines, Henning has kept the lessons he learned early on in his career close to his heart and has paid it forward while working with the company’s EQUAL group.
“One thing I learned is that I don’t want anyone to ever feel isolated, which is why as part of EQUAL, we work very hard within our community to help folks who are going through similar situations.”
A holistic approach
United Airlines runs its business on the concept of their ‘core4’ values: safe, caring, dependable and efficient.
Henning says that EQUAL and the airline’s other BRGs play a key role in those core4 values and are committed to creating a “more diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace environment,” and that a strong culture is part of their approach to DE&I.
“We provide feedback and perspective to our business groups to help ensure that our policies and processes are inclusive of LGBTQ+ employees and our allies’ perspective,” he elaborates.
Henning stresses the importance of allyship, noting that “we can’t do it alone.”
“It’s important to have everyone involved with this so we can all work together to advance these priorities,” he adds.
When it comes to promoting an inclusive working environment, EQUAL has played an instrumental role in making sure United Airlines’ LGBTQ+ employees have the opportunity to present themselves in a way that makes them feel their most authentic.
The airline was one of the first major carriers to allow staff the option to display their pronouns on their name badges in 2023.
Henning says that the decision was made with the aim of promoting a more inclusive environment and greater understanding of gender identity among both employees and customers.
“We recognise [that] for some people understanding someone’s name and identity is part of making a connection, and this is an option for employees who want to share,” he says.
Pronouns and educational resources
It’s not just pronouns on name badges that make United Airlines an inclusive place to work. Henning and the EQUAL network are also proactive in providing educational resources, events and programmes to support the airline’s recruiting and hiring efforts, including pilots.
EQUAL participated in the National Gay Pilots Association conference and was directly involved in United Airlines’ recruitment efforts to find the best, most talented aviators in the world.
“It was a very exciting programme because we were the first and only BRG from any company present at this company to directly engage in pilot recruitment efforts,” Henning recounts.
Henning stresses how important education is as well. EQUAL hosts various fireside chats and other sessions covering a range of topics from mental health in the LGBTQ+ community to intersectionality.
‘We all want to advance the objectives’
Henning does acknowledge that the inclusivity on display at United Airlines is a company-wide effort: It didn’t happen overnight and wasn’t spearheaded by one particular person or team.
“Creating a more diverse, equitable and inclusive culture where all employees feel safe to be their authentic selves requires a long-term mindset and ultimately makes us a better, more successful airline,” he asserts.
Henning believes that for DE&I to be a priority, there has to be buy-in from all senior leadership, as that “set[s] the tone and flows down throughout the company.”
For other companies that are looking to enhance or develop inclusive policies and practices aimed at LGBTQ+ employees, Henning recommends connecting with companies like United Airlines that have those policies already in place.
“I always say that just like you don’t compete on safety, you don’t compete on DE&I, we’re all in this together,” he concludes.
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