Southwest calls itself the love airline – it is actually listed on the New York Stock Exchange as LUV and its employees are ‘cohearts’.
This focus on love and kindness really come out to play during the pandemic, which hit the aviation sector extremely hard.
On the main stage of Qualtrics X4 conference in Salt Lake City, Southwest’s senior vice-president of culture and communications Whitney Eichinger shared that adversity often reveals a lot about people’s character – and it is the same for culture.
But what the challenges of COVID-19 showed Southwest was “our employees are the real deal” – they really showed up for customers, going above and beyond, and delivering the extraordinary.
And, in turn, they felt supported and looked after by Southwest and its HR team. This is proved by the numerous accolades that Southwest has won in 2023 for its culture, as well as successes in areas like diversity and inclusion.
Having fun at work
In an exclusive UNLEASH interview, Eichinger shares that being people-first is part of Southwest’s DNA – and having fun is central to that.
The airline was co-founded in 1971 by Herb Kelleher and Rollin King. Kelleher served as CEO for most of the ensuing 30 years, and Eichinger notes that he was “very, very serious about having a good time” at work.
Of course, airlines come with lots of rules and regulations, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun.
“We are a little different than all the other airlines. A little wilder” – and for Eichinger that has really helped Southwest to standout and continue to attract talent in this challenging market.
“You feel like you’re joining a place that is fun; you can see the playfulness of the brand [and] you can see the employees having a good time…. And that is something that does attract employees [to] Southwest”, she notes.
Kelleher isn’t the only CEO who was focused on fun, but the current CEO Bob Jordan also leads the way on celebrating employees and their fun-loving dedication to their jobs. “We’re really transparent with our communication. There’s a lot of interaction with leadership” – for Eichinger, this is a real attractor.
Ultimately, this fun culture explains why Southwest managed to hire a staggering 18,000 people in 2022 – this was the highest annual recruitment figure in the company’s 50-year history.
This means Southwest has more employees than pre-COVID-19; the airline has no plans to slow down with a 7,000 hiring target for 2023 and a focus of growing to 100,000 employees in five years (it currently has around 70,000).
Leaning into your employer brand
Another reason for the 2022 recruitment success was Southwest decision to get “proactive” around reaching out to candidates and sharing the Southwest story, including specifics about job roles, responsibilities and benefits.
Historically “Southwest has always been a much lauded culture [and] people just automatically wanted to come to work here”, but that’s no longer the case; “they’re not just going to walk in the door anymore”.
“Even as a brand that stands out, you still have to work really hard to get that top talent… [because] that environment for talent has become so much more competitive,” shares Eichinger.
She adds that one of the core conversations HR has with candidates is about the working environment – “we need to be flexible”, and provide opportunities for HQ and call center staff to work remotely. But 90% of Southwest employees work in the field, so what does this look like for them?
Ultimately, “if you want a fully remote role, Southwest may not be for you”.
All this work on employer brand was a learning curve for Southwest, but it wasn’t just about candidates, the airline has also really leaned into retention, and listening to its employees – with the help of Qualtrics.
“For us, retaining employees is one of the most important things. We spend a lot of time getting them through the door, we spend a lot of time training them, and we want them to think that Southwest is a great place to work,” states Eichinger.
Taking action based on feedback
Focusing in on listening, during her X4 keynote, Eichinger stated that pre-COVID-19 surveys were okay, but they were a chore, but the pandemic really taught Southwest’s HR team that they need to switch up their listening strategy.
The core of Southwest’s approach to listening is ensuring that the company actually takes action based on feedback – for Eichinger, surveys are only as good as the resulting actions employers take.
Southwest now does two annual company-wide surveys, onboarding and offboarding surveys, and then annual action planning; “making sure we’re showing action on some of [that feedback]”, because “keeping the trust of our employees is probably the most important thing”.
Beyond surveys, Southwest also ensures it offers a variety (or “menu”) of ways for employees to communicate with HR and leadership (and vice-versa).
“There’s a lot of opportunity to make sure that we are communicating clearly, and we are communicating in a way that our employees want”, ultimately “meeting the employees where they are”.
For instance, Southwest has a culture Facebook page, plus it relies on Microsoft Teams and Yammer for employee comms.
Ultimately, “reminding ourselves that culture is not just about having a good time. It is about listening, it is about the employee experience. It is about taking action when you hear something”.
For Eichinger, “nothing matters if they don’t feel engaged” at work.
A core component of the listening work is ensuring that employees feel like the company’s culture isn’t built for them, but by them.
They need to lead the change – and the company trusts them to do so – but also, importantly, Southwest is committed to not “overwhelming” the workforce with change.
Southwest’s HR team has an awareness that “we have some people who just want to come to work, do a great job, and go home”. “You don’t have to be a cheerleader [of the company], but you can be”.
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