Creating a Culture of Employee Appreciation and Recognition
Overhauling a corporate culture is difficult. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary when Tonda Ferguson joined Southwest in 1982 as Manager of Employee Communications.
The foundation laid by Leaders such as Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett from day one—with a focus on keeping things fun and celebratory for Employees—meant that Tonda could push to create unique experiences for Employees, with the confidence that no idea would be met with eye rolls, no matter how crazy. “You can propose anything, and it will be listened to,” Tonda said. “And more times than not, they’ll say go for it.”
Years before Employee recognition programs were formally structured, that same vibe of appreciation was ever-present. Colleen was famous for sending handwritten thank-you notes to Employees, and when more formal internal communications went out, she was quick to ask how a message might land with different Employee groups—the same message might make Pilots happy while inadvertently offending Flight Attendants.
Having this kind of equitable, 360-degree view of Employees and their perceptions has been at the core of the Southwest Way since the early days. In recent years, this has extended to formal recognition programs.
When Gary Kelly became CEO in 2004, he was looking for more tangible ways to thank Employees for displaying behaviors connected with Southwest’s Core Values. Giving out SWA merchandise—keychains and commemorative coins—quickly evolved into offering travel rewards. What soon became clear, however, was that many People could not take advantage of travel incentives—single parents or those caring for a loved one were hard pressed to get away. On top of this, department Leaders were inconsistent in how they rewarded Employees. Just as Southwest made its name by treating all Customers equally, the Company found that Employees wanted the same consistency.
What Southwest needed was a more formalized platform for recognition, and a more robust marketplace of incentives that could be earned through individual performance. This led to the founding of the SWAG (Southwest Airlines Gratitude) program in 2013.
Echoing a Southwest ad campaign that the Company launched after winning its first self-described “Triple Crown” for Customer Service (“We Came. We Saw. We Kicked Tail.”), the Kick TailTM program has always been focused on Peer-to-Peer rather than top-down recognition. Launched during the Iraq War in 2007 to boost morale and engage Employees, Kick Tail became a way for Employees to recognize each other for a job well done, for going above and beyond, or for some simple kindness—in short, for demonstrating Southwest Values. The program was later expanded to include Southwest’s most loyal Customers, who were given Kick Tails to recognize and appreciate Employees for exceptional Customer Service.
SWAG is the airline’s egalitarian reward system, where points can be exchanged not only for travel incentives such as Rapid Rewards® points and Guest Passes, but also for fun merchandise (headphones, sunglasses, etc.), gift cards, and Visa debit cards. The points never expire, allowing Employees to save up.
The two programs are interlinked: Each Kick Tail enters an Employee into a monthly prize drawing of SWAG points. Now that every incentive program is built on SWAG points, Southwest has a “common currency” that Employees can use for items they really want.
In addition, at the beginning of each year, Gary typically lays out a Battle Plan that challenges Employees to reach specific goals. In 2020, the goals were to be the Most Loved, Most Flown, and Most Efficient airline, with metrics applied to each. For each metric hit, Employees receive SWAG points (plus a bonus for hitting all three). This approach directly ties individual behaviors to Companywide goals.
Gary Kelly surprises Taylor Thompson with a $5,000 check for “Kicking Tail.”
Along with rewards comes recognition. Southwest has always found fun ways to publicly celebrate its People. Kick Tail drawing winners have regularly been recognized in Team meetings or gatherings, and Senior Leaders often get the honor of bestowing these awards, making the moment much more special.
Before they were known as “Rallies,” Southwest’s signature company event was called “Message to the Field,” and it’s always been a cross between a pep rally and a “state of the Company” address. At 2009’s “Message to the Field,” a group of annual Kick Tail drawing winners was in the audience. Gary called them on stage for what appeared to be another one of Southwest’s fun games.
Gary Kelly holds the $10,000 briefcase at a 2009 Message to the Field.
“I will give you each two round trip tickets right now,” Gary said, “or you can have what’s in the case.” They all chose the briefcase. Inside was a $10,000 check for being an annual Kick Tail winner. Wise choice!
Kick Tails and SWAG points help shorten the distance between individual daily behaviors and Company objectives. When Gary’s 2020 Battle Plan quickly became irrelevant after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kick Tail drawings were suspended as part of a larger plan to manage costs. Nevertheless, Employees continued to send Kick Tails to appreciate each other, and Leaders continued to recognize extraordinary performance by giving SWAG points via awards called On the Spot and Southwest Star. A new Heart Strong e-card was also introduced to match the gravity of the 2020 moment. In the three months following its introduction in late April, almost 50,000 Kick Tails were sent using the Heart Strong e-card, recognizing behaviors such as selflessness, courage, resilience, and positivity.
In recognition of the hard work and strong morale of Southwest Employees, Leaders could issue an “On the Spot” award of 500 SWAG Points.
During difficult times, Southwest Employees have always stepped up. Recognition has always been the Southwest Way and has now become more important than ever.