How Southwest Airlines Will Shape the Future of Employer Branding

What’s the best way to build an employer brand in times like these?

While the answer isn’t always straightforward, one shift has been clear since employer branding gained traction over the last decade. In addition to our own findings on the subject, Harvard Business Review along with employer branding consultancies Universum and Link Humans have all confirmed that culture and employee experience are now the top drivers of an employer brand. We suspect that this trend will continue, especially amidst a pandemic where culture, trust, and safety are top priorities.

That being said, we also know how fuzzy ‘culture’ can be based on the many conversations we’ve had with HR executives over the years. What is culture? How do you get a hold of it? Well, we recently came across a news feature that named an approach that we haven’t seen anyone emphasize before. It might just change how you think about attracting talent moving into the future, and it comes from one of the companies at the cutting edge of employer branding: Southwest Airlines.

A viral video that has become emblematic of Southwest's lighthearted, welcoming culture

Southwest Airlines was recently named by HR Dive as the 2019 Employer Brand of the Year. In addition to being lauded for over a decade for its high ratings on Glassdoor, and famed for its lighthearted approach to company culture, Southwest has also managed to be virtually untouched by negative press. What is it that sets Southwest Airlines apart from their competitors when it comes to employer branding—and what can they teach us about how to navigate an uncertain future?

According to Greg Muccio, Southwest's Director of Talent Acquisition, the company does everything it can to protect culture and ensure compatibility with the mission and values of the organization. Muccio has suggested that rather than insist on the kind of person you have to take or the “qualities” you have to have in a candidate, it might pay to focus on identifying the behaviors and values that you won’t.

"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. 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."
— Greg Muccio, Director of Talent Acquisition, Southwest Airlines

Protecting your culture when building an employer brand

Why does it pay to protect your culture? To put it simply, when you compare the approach that most companies take to the approach that Southwest has emphasized, you’ll find that most organizations are focusing on virtually every other aspect of their employer branding strategy.

The vast majority of employer branding advice focuses on implementing tactics and strategies, such as:

  • Obtaining public recognition via press or Best Places to Work awards;
  • Developing an employee value proposition and benefits program;
  • Getting employee stories and managing company reviews on Glassdoor;
  • Defining and publicizing your core mission and values and/or diversity statements;
  • Treating employees like human beings (which we’d like to see more of!)

While these are important steps, the emphasis on executing these tactics and strategies can often eclipse the underlying principles that would lead us to consider protecting our culture in the first place. If you consider the basic idea that a strong employer identity comes from a sense of integrity in your company, it becomes far more apparent that it would pay to ensure that your culture and employee experience are protected from unhelpful and damaging influences—including potential new recruits.

This is key, especially during the time of a crisis such as COVID-19. Unless we remember that great employer brands are built on a culture of collective trust and safety, we are prone to forget that the creation of successful retention programs and resilient employer brands also requires a focused approach at the front of the hiring funnel and properly vetting your candidates.

Balancing risk and speed in the recruitment process? Here’s how

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Creating a culture of trust and safety begin well before the employee onboarding. But often, the mindset when it comes to hiring is to insist on choosing the “perfect” candidate or simply getting someone who can do the job and “figuring out the rest later.” Unfortunately, the first approach can drastically increase the time to hire while resulting in unintentional bias, and the second can lead to making a bad hire or bringing on an employee that is ultimately damaging to the organization.

To sidestep this, a growing number of HR and talent management experts are advocating an approach that focuses on screening out people who carry values and behaviors that are incongruent with or detrimental to a successful organization. One of these experts, Dr. John Sullivan, argues that most HR professionals only put a marginal effort into eliminating this type of damage because they’re not fully aware of the tremendous costs of bringing on a toxic or damaging employee.

“Even though everyone in management and HR knows about toxic employees, I find that less than one in a thousand organizations have a formal program for identifying and eliminating them,” says Sullivan. “A few organizations like Google have a ‘no jerk rule’. But even in most of these organizations, there is no systematic process for identifying and weeding out these people.”

Learn How You Can Protect Your Culture From Toxic Employees

Consider how well the employer branding tactics and strategies mentioned earlier in this post would hold up in the absence of a resilient corporate culture. Then consider the additional variables that a pandemic like the one we're living in today can make each of these even more challenging to handle.

If you’ve done a lot of work to improve your employer brand but haven’t seen the results come together, it might be time to focus on protecting your culture. Take it from Southwest: when you take steps to reduce damaging workplace behaviors and ensure greater cohesion, you’ll gain the capacity to not only create a stronger employer brand but also navigate our current situation with greater ease.