Employee engagement

Learn From Women Pilots How Not to Treat Employees

I was riveted by the lengthy obituary of Violet Cowden, one of an elite corps of women pilots who, during World War II, ferried planes from factories to airfields where they were urgently needed. She died at 94 on April 10 and left a lasting legacy of loyalty and patriotism – but also a lesson for companies today about how not to treat their employees.

According to The New York Times obituary, Vi and her fellow women pilots flew thousands of vital missions, freeing male pilots for combat missions. Attached to the Army Air Forces, these experienced and patriotic women were known as WASPS (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Vi was the subject of a documentary last year, “Wings of Silver: The Vi Cowden Story.”

They Paid Their Own Way

I was shocked to learn that “Because they were civil service employees and not military personnel, the WASPs had to pay for their own food, lodging and often capacious attire. There were no flight suits for women then, and Mrs. Cowden, barely more than 5 feet tall, was installed in a men’s Size 44 for the duration.” Vi worked seven days a week and “flew in all weather, came down on runways without lights and sometimes took the controls of planes so fresh from the factory that they had never been tested.”

As the war wound down, male pilots began returning to the U.S., and Vi, along with the brave women she served with, were summarily dumped as men took their places. Most of the women faded into obscurity.

Although 38 women lost their lives and many more were injured, they were not recognized for their service until many years later when President Carter signed a bill granting the WASPs recognition as veterans which allowed them to received limited benefits.

Finally, in March of 2010, The United States awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest award that a civilian can receive from Congress – to nearly 300 women, including WASPs, all over the age of 86.

Here is Vi at 92 describing her war-time experience.

Fast Forward to Today

How are employees being treated today?  Companies that are dumping employees because of a tough economy and aren’t nurturing the employees who are left will be sorry when things get better. As I’ve written before, employees will jump ship once the economy improves if they don’t feel valued.

That’s why employee engagement is so important. Listen to your employees. They have good ideas and want their company to succeed. Enlist them as brand advocates on social media. Let them have a voice in the company.

Don’t wait. Give them the tools they need to do a good job so they feel appreciated, unlike Violet Cowden and the fearless women she flew with.

Leave a Reply


  1. Agree with you about the importance of treating your employees well. And, not to forget, listen to their ideas and value their contribution.

    It seems to me, maybe wrongly, that since the last recession started in 2007 some US companies have treated employees in ways that leave a lot to be desired.

    Not an intelligent move since each employee they treat badly will tell their story to friends and relatives. Not only in person but online as well.

    Treating employees badly will become expensive for companies if the complaints end up high on Google’s ranking. Seems they forgot that search engines record everything and forget nothing.

  2. Caterina — thanks for your insightful comment about Google recording everything and forgetting nothing. It doesn’t take long for a company’s reputation to become tarnished when employees chat online.

  3. Great share Jeannette and excellent observation about the importance of valuing and appreciating your employees. It seems like in the US, companies are only concerned with the bottom line and employees fall victim to corporate greed. Personally, my husband and I are very cognizant of how companies treat their employees and we make every effort to patronize those businesses that value the people who work for them. Nice job writing this!

  4. Jeannette, this post definitely needs to be shared and I’ll be sure to tweet it! To me, it’s a reminder that not only do we need to appreciate employees, but also all those around us!

    In Peru, I have seen more than a few cases of employee mistreatment. Unfortunately, it’s common here. Although I may not be able to make a difference in those workplaces, you’ve reminded me that I can make a difference by treating those people well outside of their work! =)

    • Samantha — you make a good point. It’s important to treat people well, both at work and outside of work. I read some of your blogs about your experiences in Peru. Fascinating.

  5. Liked the post Jeannette and it is interesting that the women pilots kept on doing their best regardless of their treatment. What companies forget is the situation will change as it did earlier around 2000 when there was a shortage of employees and they could pick and choose who they worked for.

    It will happen again and people do not forget how they are treated.

  6. Thanks, Susan. I was so impressed, as you observed, that the women pilots kept on going despite their treatment. They were truly unsung heroes and then lost their jobs to boot when male pilots came back from overseas.The bright side is that all those women working during WW II paved the way for the rest of us. Once women got a taste of the working world, nothing was going to hold us back!

  7. Sherryl — yes, it’s important to patronize businesses that treat their employees well. I think all the publicity about women not being promoted in their stores hurt WalMart, for example.Lesson learned for other retailers, hopefully.

  8. What an amazing story. I consider myself a war buff, but even I didn’t know about these women. It’s great to see that no matter how old, people still have lessons to tell from years of experience. Too bad this young lady didn’t make it to 100. Incidentally, I’m consulting at a company here in Southern California where the higher ups really care about their employees. Especially their creatives. They really nurture their creativity and let them do whatever they have to do in order to feel creative and ready to take on the tasks at hand. It makes a huge difference. And I’m well aware of the exodus that will occur once the power goes back into the hands of the people. It’s going to be really interesting to see.

  9. Dennis – aren’t you lucky to be consulting in such a caring atmosphere. You are a creative, so you know how far a little nurturing goes with sensitive and creative people. I know you will thrive there.