Where some airlines show up in the news for alleged problematic treatment of passengers and pets, Southwest Airlines made headlines this summer because one of its flight attendants climbed inside the plane's overhead compartment.
Overall, it was pretty innocuous internet fodder for the airline — and one that seemed to mostly boost the company's brand reputation.
Southwest's ability to remain above the churning tides of bad headlines (specifically those featuring competitors in the airline industry), as well as its serious approach to employee training and benefits, drove HR Dive's decision to name it Employer Brand of the Year.
A long-recognized brand keeps growing
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. The airline is routinely lauded for its strong employer brand and was named the world's No. 1 company for HR by Workforce magazine earlier this year.
Southwest's culture is not a new development (it has been on Glassdoor's Best Places to Work list for 10 years running); it has garnered attention in the past decade as a focus on company culture overtakes talk on the future of work. But its success could also be defined by the headlines it isn't making. United Airlines and American Airlines faced lawsuits from employees and states this year that included allegations that attendance policies at American discriminated against women, allegations of retaliation for use of sick leave at American, and allegations that United uses an unlawful 100%-healed policy for employees returning to work from disability leave. Southwest has, so far, largely avoided similar allegations in 2019 — though it is now fighting a lawsuit filed by a flight attendant alleging it retaliated against her for complaining about pilots using a secret camera to livestream activity from a lavatory.
To find success, the company seriously considers the type of people it wants to hire, Greg Muccio, Southwest's director of talent acquisition, told HR Dive in an interview. "My team on the TA side is the front line, and they protect the culture as it is the most important thing that they do," he said. "We won't ever tell someone who they have to take in the hiring phase, but we will tell them who they can't take."
The power of that external brand has a direct impact on company success, including hiring. In a 2018 interview, Shari Perez, senior director of people at Southwest, said that the company had received 300,000 applicants in 2017 and could only hire 2%.
The power of branding
For a brand to be truly successful, it has to be a priority in more than just the recruiting phase. Employers like Southwest ask key questions about internal workings, too: "How are people trained and developed?" Bryan Chaney, director of employer brand at Indeed, said in an interview with HR Dive, regarding branding generally. "How is management performance managed? Is there a career path?"
This year, Southwest introduced Destination 225°, a training pathway program intended to boost the number of pilots employed at the company. The program focuses on four pathways to pilot readiness, including a path for current employees. And in another effort that is deeply relevant to its employee base, as well as good for the communities in which it works, the airline announced in July that it will provide human trafficking awareness education to all employees.
"I think there's always risk to damage your employee brand if you're not fulfilling what you're selling," Chaney said. An employer that doesn't offer follow-through could easily trade an easy recruiting and talent acquisition phase for new headaches.
When employees feel cared for, they are vastly more likely to recommend their employer as a good place to work, Lee Rossini, VP of marketing at Limeade, told HR Dive. Employees are more engaged in their work, have better well-being and feel better able to manage their stress, he added.
"The best [CHROs] are really thinking about this idea to move from a transactional relationship to a deeper, caring relationship with employees," Rossini said. They ask questions, listen to what employees have to say and ensure voices are heard. Employers that do this successfully may see greater success in a tough talent market than those who put it on the back burner — something Southwest's success demonstrates.
Some of that success can be linked back to an unwillingness to compromise company values. "If your values don't line up with up with ours…we're not going to change," Muccio said.