All Aboard: Embarking Employees On the Flight of Their Life

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Cheryl Hughey

With affordable fares and stellar customer service, Southwest Airlines has made a name for itself in an industry that has had more than its share of setbacks. The company’s success is attributed to its employee-centric culture, or what the Director of Onboarding, Cheryl Hughey, calls "the Southwest Way." Hughey and her team have sparked industry-wide curiosity about why customers and employees are "nuts about Southwest."

Southwest Airlines is well known for its culture and employee engagement. Part of this is the extensive onboarding process in which the talent is nurtured. What does it mean at Southwest to create a successful culture?

We have an intuition about how you should treat employees. They really are your number one customer. You need to provide an environment where they are respected. In return they will provide positively outrageous customer service.

You need to help them understand how they fit in a very big company. It’s who we have been from the start. At Southwest we believe you are kind to people and the kindness is reciprocated. Southwest’s co-founder Herb Kelleher and President Colleen Barrett were taught this by their parents. We create a warm and fun environment where the employee is treated no different than they would be at home. This allows employees to contribute more.


Do you have any examples of an engagement initiative that helped with retention?

I had one recent employee share with me that she was offered a position and was having doubts because of salary.

The competitor was offering a little more than we were at the time. But then she had a phone call from her future manager at Southwest. The message basically said, "I am so happy you are joining Southwest, I am excited about meeting you and please feel free to call me."

After hearing the message the new hire rejected the competitor’s offer and came on board.

The new hires need to know more about us from the moment they take the position. We need to be very clear upfront so they can learn about our culture and get a feel for who we are.

How does Southwest maintain a nurturing environment through the first six months at the company?

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. We put a lot of effort into the new hires' first day at work. I hate to use the word "probation," but both the company and the employee are making decisions during the first six months. During the first period we offer continuous feedback. We also make sure to create clear expectations for their roles.

We involve them in a variety of things in their work environment and we get new employees to participate in things the company is offering. We want to make sure they understand the medical and travel benefits and take advantage of them.

Employees understand the freedom they have to make a positive experience and what that means. During the first sixth months we get them involved in going to spirit parties and our "love at first bite" luncheon.

It is said that investing in your onboarding process is obviously an investment in job satisfaction and ultimately employee retention. What do you think stops organizations from investing in talent initiatives like onboarding?

When we researched what other companies were doing in onboarding, we found that it was more driven toward processing–-getting new hires in through all sorts of Web–-based technology and getting training completed. They had check-off lists.

We have technology that will help on the task side of it. We feel it’s important to get new hires culturally acclimated. How do they understand the Southwest way? This is not included on any sort of check-off list.

What new onboarding talent initiatives are you working on?

We are trying to get the leaders more involved in what happens at the six or 12 month period and provide our leaders with the tools to do that. We host luncheons and reduce the cost of turnover through more engaging activities for talent to make them feel accepted and welcome.

We want to focus on creating a memorable experience for the new hire in the first year rather than processing them in the first few weeks. We started highlighting the newer employees and letting them shine rather than focusing on the tenured employees. They have only been here two or three months and we try to get them inspired early on.

Do you have any statistics that show how well Southwest’s onboarding process has lead to higher employee retention?

We are getting our arms around our first year turnover so we know if we are making some improvement. We reduce first year turnover by treating new hires right so they stay. It’s hard to get our arms around productivity level and the emotional commitment of employees, however, we look at the choices employees make regarding benefits including long termretirement. We pay close attention to how much participation we are getting in these events. We invest early on in talent to encourage loyalty and commitment.

Southwest Airlines as a company has a great big heart. We like to engage our leadership with our talent including talking about the Southwest way. Leaders share stories about when they started at Southwest Airlines. We have a warrior spirit and fun-loving attitude.

Interview by Blake Landau