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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Southwest Airlines Soars On Employee Engagement

Southwest Airlines just reported its 40th consecutive profitable year in a 41-year history during which the company has never furloughed employees.

That's a remarkable accomplishment in one of the most competitive businesses around.  All the more so considering that the Dallas-based carrier was able to add to that record during the economic and industry turbulence of the last few years.

There are many reasons for such an achievement, but Southwest Airlines people themselves will say that their long culture of employee engagement is one of the biggest.

Southwest's institutionalization of employee-recognition programs, company-wide surveys, special awards, distinctive Halloween celebrations and an annual company-wide blowout at a city on its route system have combined to help create an enthusiastic and committed workforce whose evident glow, in turn, rubs off on Southwest passengers by the millions -- and continues the company's cycle of prosperity.

"Customer service internally is what's critical, so that it spills over externally; and that trust that employees have in the company, and our leadership, is key for them to support the airline in a rapidly changing world," Cheryl Hughey, director of culture services for Southwest, told us. "We say we can have fun at work, and that's unique -- other organizations may not see the value of that."

And when "something comes up," as it often does in an industry as dynamic as air travel, the proven effectiveness of Southwest's employee-engagement culture helps the company perform best in whatever situation arises.

For example, Southwest was able to smoothly digest Trans Air after acquiring it in 2011, and integrate its 8,000 employees, partly because of a program in which Southwest employees volunteered to "adopt" a Trans Air employee via e-mail and guide them through the transition, then meet with them personally when their new Southwest orientation brought them to Dallas.

"We avoided having that 'takeover' feel because of that program," Hughey said.

Among other things, Trans Air's former employees learned about "the Southwest way," which describes the company's core values and expectations.

"We want to ensure that we have that fun-loving characteristic but also we do extremely hard work," Hughey explained. "And we have a servant's heart: putting others first."

Also contributing to Southwest's highly engaged culture is a small operation that, according to Hughey, has a huge impact: a handful of staffers who process letters and e-mails and other messages from customers about Southwest employees. Certainly there are complaints, but the group mainly exists to feed commendations of employees to those who need to know.

"The research that goes into this is huge," Hughey said. "Our people figure out which employees [took the commendable actions] and exactly what happened. We let their leader know, and we want the world to know internally and externally about these great feats of customer satisfaction, and the way our employees treat each other as well as our customers, and in times of need the way they come together.

"There's a lot of work that goes into that. A lot of companies may like what they hear about their employee, but they aren't willing to put in the work that it takes to make sure they're recognized."

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