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UPS chief: Black female doctor incident on Delta shows need to reinforce values

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

Credit: Kelly Yamanouchi

UPS CEO David Abney, speaking at a women's leadership event held at the shipping giant's headquarters in Sandy Springs, cited a recent incident involving a flight attendant's treatment of a black female doctor on a Delta Air Lines flight as a situation to avoid.

The mention of the issue by Abney at the Women's Leadership Exchange event shows how company executives watch such incidents at other businesses as lessons to learn from.

Abney, declining to name the airline that is a fellow corporate giant based in metro Atlanta, recounted reports about how during a medical emergency on a plane, "they're looking for a doctor that can help out, and the black female doctor -- accomplished doctor -- rings the bell and lets them know."

"Instead of being able to immediately see the passenger, they start getting asked a lot of questions: 'Are you really a doctor?'" he said. "Another person rings and that person is a white male doctor and that person is immediately taken to the passenger."

"Does the company endorse that? Absolutely they don't, and they quickly reacted," Abney said.

Delta issued a statement after the incident saying it was troubled by the accusations and that it was investigating. According to the airline, only one of the three medical professionals who identified themselves on the flight "was able to produce documentation of medical training and that is the doctor who was asked to assist the customer onboard." Delta also said its flight attendants are trained to collect information from medical volunteers and to ask questions if medical identification isn't available.

But the airline also said the treatment Dr. Tamika Cross described "is not reflective of Delta’s culture or of the values our employees live out every day."

Abney said UPS "can certainly make sure that our company, dealing with our customers and our suppliers and dealing with the community, that no one feels that way with UPS.... But we can't think that we're immune."

"What we can do is reinforce the values that we have," he said. "We do that, and we have much less likelihood of having those situations come up."

Abney also cited another incident when he and UPS chief sales and solutions officer Kate Gutmann were meeting with the CEO of a client at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

It became apparent that the client "may have had the impression that Kate didn't have quite the responsibility that she had... just the way that he was initially reacting," Abney said.

Gutmann "made it very clear what her role was and what her responsibility was," Abney said. "But if Kate's name had been Keith versus Kate, it just makes you wonder, would that customer have jumped to the same conclusion at the very beginning, and would Keith have had to explain as Kate did?"

UPS hosted the women's leadership exchange to mark the 10-year anniversary of its women's leadership development group, which it launched after seeing a high turnover rate among women in leadership positions at UPS.

"It seemed like every time we took two steps forward, we took a step back," Abney said. Since then, he said, "we have made some good improvements."


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