How Southwest Airlines Puts Employees First

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

What’s the secret sauce behind the enviable employer brand of Southwest Airlines? We’ll get the answers in this week’s interview.

Shari Conaway is the People Director at the company. A servant leader and HR professional in the airline industry for over 20 years, her job is focused on supporting the team members of Southwest.

Have a listen to the episode below, keep reading for a summary and be sure to subscribe to the Employer Branding Podcast.

Listen on Apple PodcastsStitcher RadioGoogle Play or SoundCloud.

Describe the Corporate Culture at Southwest.

Southwest has always been known for our people-centric philosophy, and from day one culture was always important to Southwest. We have a whole department dedicated to culture, and they are championed to manage and preserve the culture we have here.

There are three things we want our people to focus on:

  • To appreciate each other
  • To recognize each other
  • To celebrate each other.

For example, we have spirit parties where we will pick a location and allow people to bring in their families and spend time with their friends and loved ones. We also have a chili cook-off, and every February we have a company rally where our CEO gives a state of the union, and people are allowed to ask him questions. Of course, it ends with a party too!

What talent challenges are you faced with?

In the US our biggest challenge is the very low unemployment rate. While it’s great that people are working, trying to find that talent and be as competitive as possible can be difficult. A lot of people think we compete against airlines for talent, and while that is true, we also compete against the likes of Amazon and Homebase, so attracting that caliber of passive talent is something we talk about every day.

Tell us about your employer brand strategy.

Fortunately Southwest has a world-famous culture, and we have the reputation because we put our people first. So the employer brand has been to ride the coattails of our company brand, which has allowed us the ability to recruit the best.

Our customers and our passengers are our best advocates in terms of referring people to come work for us. They see the great people and culture we have. We even get letters from parents asking us to hire their son or daughter.

Last year we received over 300,000 applicants and were only about to hire 2% of that. So the interest is super high, but we have to be very selective when it comes to our hiring. We only employ people who live the Southwest Way. And there are three things we look for with this:

  • Warrior Spirit: Someone who wants to give 100% every single day.
  • Servant’s Heart: We live by the golden rule, which is being a caring individual and treating others with respect.
  • Fun-LUVing Attitude: Most people spend the majority of their life at work, and we want you to take your work seriously, but not yourself. Just have fun at work!

The way we activate this includes; posting about living the Southwest Way every place we can find to post it. We talk about culture at the very beginning of the interview process. When you are hired, you are given a card which contains a reminder of the values we share at Southwest

What initiatives are you proud of?

We have had a college internship program that has been very successful, but when we sat down and thought about it, we felt that by the time someone has got to college they already know what they want to do and more often than not it’s not something to do with aviation.

So we now go into high schools to help kids understand the potential of working in aviation, what it’s like to be a pilot or what it’s like to be a mechanic. We have expanded the reach of students we look at, even help conduct summer camps to help kids understand life in aviation, and some of these kids now work for us!

We have an adopt-a-pilot program which connects our pilots to 5th-grade classrooms, where a class follows a pilot on the trips he or she has, and they get to learn about subjects such as aerodynamics. So it’s a great way to broaden our reach and educate kids on the potential of working in aviation.

What hard lesson can you share with us?

We did not upgrade our ATS for a long time, and after the recession in 2009 we posted our most popular position, which is the flight-attendant position on an old system, and we had so many applicants apply that our whole website, including where we sell tickets, had to go down for a while.

So since then we have stayed up-to-date on technology and keep our ATS updated as regularly as possible!

Connect with Shari on LinkedIn and check out the Southwest careers page!


Our newsletter is exclusively curated by our CEO, Jörgen Sundberg, for leaders who make decisions about talent. Subscribe for updates on The Employer Branding Podcast, new articles, eBooks, research and events we’re working on.


Play Video

Recent Articles

The Impact of Remote Work on Employer Brand

Recognizing the importance of a strong employer brand in attracting and retaining talent (Bali & Dixit, 2016), Link Humans has for several years provided its clients insight into how their employer brand is perceived via its Employer Brand Index (EBI)....

How Thermo Fisher Scientific Measures the Impact of Employer Branding

Many of the employer branding professionals we speak to on the Employer Branding Podcast are chasing the same thing: how do you measure the impact of employer branding? That’s why I was so excited to sit down with Kenty Brumant,...

Why Activision Blizzard Manages 3 Employer Brands with 3 EVPs

As you can imagine, we talk about EVPs a lot on the Employer Branding Podcast. It’s a distillation of what makes your organization a good fit for potential hires. A shorthand way of saying, “these are my people.” But what...