Keeping your employees forever — 4 observations from the Southwest’s Culture

“In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, masks will drop down from overhead. Put your mask on. If you have a child put their mask on second. If you have more than one child then pick the one you love the most.” 

And, that’s the kind of safety announcement that a flight attendant of the most sought after airlines makes during a takeoff. Would you believe if I said some of this company’s employees wholeheartedly agreed to work on a voluntary pay cut during an unprecedented crisis? Surprisingly, it hires flight attendants who are hilarious on many levels. 

In a world where employees bowing out of companies for their benefit, where does this kind of loyalty come from? Maybe, we should extend the question to what it takes to earn that kind of loyalty from your employees.

After 50 long years, even today, Southwest is one of the sought after employers to work for. Last year marks the 10th consecutive year in a row that Southwest Airlines has ranked as one of Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work, based on the employee experience and satisfaction. They believe employee experience is the forefront of customer experience which in turn leads to stakeholder happiness. 

Humor is a big part of Southwest’s culture. The company tests for the sense of humor when interviewing prospective employees with questions like, ‘How did you use humor to extricate yourself from an embarrassing situation?’ They have always wanted their employees to take their jobs seriously but not themselves. Why? At a gut level, when employees don’t take themselves seriously, they tend to carry no negative emotions against their peers and holistically focus towards just one goal as a team. Anyone is free to correct anyone with their opinion if they feel it’s the right thing to do. Furthermore, the voluntary turnover rate of this company is as small as 2.5% until this day!

Answering the extended question — what it took Southwest to earn that kind of loyalty from their employees?

Well, think back and ask yourself: when would you stay loyal in a relationship?

You may say when you feel valued, trusted and certainly yes, as it goes without saying when you are happy! Your company’s relationship with your employees is no different from this. Instilling a sense of purpose might help your employees latch on to your company a long way. Southwest does this by allowing its employees to ‘do the right thing’ rather than doing what is right. When all the energy is put undividedly into one goal, the employees wouldn’t want to let the company down by stepping aside. But, how did Southwest nail at restoring employee loyalty through employee happiness? 

Well, if you go ahead and read this article you might as well be awestruck at the things that this company does for its employees.

Now get ready for some amazing series of anecdotes from this one 🙂

Anecdote 1 — Southwest touching the lives of its employees

You might have come across a plethora of companies that do phenomenal things for their customers. But Southwest sets itself apart by doing unimaginable things for employees who are even on the verge of retirement. This, speaks volumes about its attitude towards employee happiness.

Captain Lee Carder, who has served 32 long years for Southwest, flew his final flights with his two sons who are also pilots for Southwest airlines. Beware. This heart touching video might even make your eyes sweat. 

(~2:00 Mins ) Story of Two generations of  a family @ Southwest 

 “ Southwest gave me everything I need and I gave them all my kids. And, today my kids got everything they need”

Southwest has appeared to be the most empathetic airline for keeps. More than recruiting just ramp agents, Southwest has gone far ahead and provided a great platform for great humans. They don’t hire just people who are passionate about customer service, but who are equally passionate about community service too.

Anecdote — 2 Rewarding employees 

Employees at Southwest receive letters of thanks from customers (known as LUV Mail). Instead of tipping, regular flyers are allowed to thank employees by sending them a “Customer Kick Tail-A-Gram,” which the employees receive in the mail. If nominated for this perk, employees receive a note in the mail with a code allowing them to enter a monthly lottery.

(~9.00 mins) How Southwest sends out rewards to its best-performing employees

Besides, in 2017 it shared $543 million through its Profit Sharing Plan with its Employees. This equals approximately 11.3 percent of each eligible Employee’s eligible compensation—the equivalent of more than five weeks’ pay. While in 2019, this amount increased to $667 million.

Southwest’s ROI on employee happiness

Employer Branding

Southwest has a 4.3 rating on Indeed and Glassdoor, among the highest for its industry. Reviews attest to the company’s benefits, the people and the fun, “motivating” atmosphere. 


Arriving at this is no joke. 

When September 11, 2001, catastrophe hit the airline industry hard, many airlines, including giants like US Airways, were in poor shape. They had to relentlessly layoff their employees. But Southwest had other ideas. It seized this opportunity to establish its employer branding with a notion that in bad times if you take care of your employees, in good times they might think, perhaps, “We’ve never lost our jobs. That’s a pretty good reason to stick around.”

No wonder the employees decided to work on a pay cut!

With information overflowing the internet, the kind of activities that Southwest airlines do would certainly entice more and more new applicants. And it is a know-brainer that employer branding is the forefront of customer service in this era. With the advent of various employer review sites like Glassdoor, it comes as no surprise that you are judged by your potential hires and customers based on how you hold your insiders. 

Employees delivering magnanimous Customer Experience

Here’s a  short story that depicts customer service at Southwest airlines wherein the flight waited for two long hours to onboard a family whose daughter had to undergo a proton radiation simulation in Florida. Turned out that, one of the female attendants at the airport, looking at the family’s distress, offered tickets to Florida at very affordable rates and presented a free voucher from Southwest for a night’s stay in Confort Inn and Suites. Read more

At Southwest, having fun is a strategy that is employed. When things got stressful at the airport due to bad weather causing delays, the employees played gate games with their customers to relieve that stress. When the gate agent would announce to the customers sitting in the boarding area that we were giving a $25 off coupon good for their next flight if they had a hole in their sock, people took off their shoes and held up their foot to let us judge who had the biggest hole. 

For many years their paychecks had the message “Provided by our Customers” to remind the Employees of the Customers’ importance.  By treating its employees like family, Southwest has gained employees who treat customers like family. 

Restoring employee loyalty the Southwest way

Hiring for attitude

Southwest airlines hire candidates who have a warrior spirit, a servant’s heart and a fun-loving attitude.

It believes engagement is a two-way street and hence employers must work hard to keep employees engaged by offering good pay and benefits and opportunities for development. There is no HR department in Southwest airlines, rather, it is called the People’s department because “Southwest is about the people who work here and people we serve, We just happen to fly airplanes” says HR. During the hiring process, each candidate is asked to take over the stage to talk about why they would be the right fit to be a flight attendant, while you all might be thinking that the test was for the candidate talking on the stage, the truth is, it is for the fellow candidates listening to it. If the fellow candidates are found not to be paying attention, they are kicked out. But why? As the name says it all, it is the responsibility of a Flight “attendant” to pay “attention” failing to do which, implies their complacency. 

The company believes it can’t train heart-based decision-making in people. Because, putting yourself in others’ shoes is a trait, not a lesson.

Teaching the Southwest way from day one

New hires are taught from scratch by immersing them into the customer service culture since day one. They are shown a video that exemplifies how some of the frustrated customers of airlines no longer wanted to do business with them because of its impolite and rude employees. While it would have been a little frustrating for them on the very initial days of onboarding to see employees being sent back home, the video was nothing but some of the instances of bad customer service in Southwest itself. This would enable the new hires to understand what customer service meant to Southwest.

Empowering employees

At Southwest, the key to keeping empowerment alive is by trusting the employees. They are free to do things like pitch in together and give inputs into the company’s policies and procedures. The philosophy taught to employees is that, as long as they intend to help the customer, coworker or company, even if it meant to do things might backfire, they would not be fired. Simply put, Southwest insist people use their common sense during their decision making and not default themselves to any rules book. 

“I walk off with a sense of self-satisfaction of providing the best customer service after each flight and there’s nothing like it” , says a Southwest’s flight attendant 

And the lesson learned?  

Southwest employees don’t do things for money but pride. And what they receive in return?

“An Ineffable Sense of Satisfaction”. On top of that, affordable or sometimes even free travel tickets for themselves and their family. Instead of monetizing their happiness, Southwest simply decided to gift them the happiness itself and their employee testimonials on Youtube say it all!


Lessons to take away from the Southwest airlines  

#1 — Create a deeper connection with your employees 

Seeing your employees through the eyes of friendship and family allows you to touch their personal lives beyond their professional lives. Creating a deeper connection between the employee and their job could instill a sense of purpose in them.

#2 — Get them to be unconsciously real

On the same lines, figure out that one trait that you want your employees to vibe and make sure they are unconsciously real. For instance, it was humor in the case of Southwest. If not, then your employees would have to put up a front each time and this would make work-life hard on them.

#3 — Empower your employees

Empower your employees to make decisions irrespective of their hierarchy. This would tap through their emotions and make them feel more accountable.

#4 — Become a great employer at heart

Needless to say, doing all of this would keep your employer branding up and in-place. And, that brings us to the analogy ‘If you can influence the lives of your employees in your kind of Southwest way, the sense of satisfaction bestowed nor your employees cannot be taken away by anyone.