Known for innovation in plane boarding and creating a lively, fun atmosphere, Southwest Airlines has earned a reputation as an innovator. While preferred seating and other “normal” tenants of the air travel world are sought by some travelers, Southwest has found that a vast number of their passengers just want to be treated equitably -- and the same is being said for employees. The airline is taking recognition to a new level by making sure all employees are treated fairly and with equity.
The goal began inside the company’s Texas headquarters when it comes to recognizing great work among employees – a successful program that Tonda Ferguson has had a vital role in running during her 30-plus years with the airline. Today, she can admit that at one time there was very little equity in the program, which was a problem.
“It varied so much. In one department a top employee would be rewarded with a free car, and in another they’d get a free lunch,” Ferguson recalled. “Employees want equity in the workplace. It all needs to feed into one system.”
Southwest undertook a large-scale revamp of its employee recognition system, and emerged with two programs that have proven to be both popular and successful. “SWAG” is an acronym for Southwest Airlines Gratitude” and it’s a program by which employees can earn points which can be applied for shopping sprees and space available airline seats that can be given to friends. It was an important perk for airline employees who are used to flight privileges. The SWAG system allows points to be accumulated so employees can fly with friends, family and others, and they can even get a confirmed seat.
Ferguson also runs the bigger program, called “Kick Tail” which rewards employees for the company meeting goals, and furthering its legendary culture of customer service. It’s a rapid reward for things like the company ranking atop airline service surveys or being the top on-time airline.
“It shows how you can take company goals and turn them into an employee recognition effort,” she said. “Employees really love the program.”
Recognizing that getting an award in front of your co-workers is in itself a reward, Southwest also directs the Kick Tail Prize Patrol, which makes a big show of surprising employees with an award, complete with balloons and cheers, that gets noticed by others. They’ve even been known to have the company CEO show up to hand out cash rewards for good work.
“Sometimes companies struggle to make it fun, but now everyone is pulling in the same direction,” said Ferguson, who will offer a presentation on the Southwest way of employee recognition at the upcoming RPI Annual Conference in late April. “Now we can move quickly, and when people are living the Southwest way, we can recognize them at the drop of a hat.”