How to Inspire Employee Loyalty from Day One

By Heather Baldwin

Veteran teachers know the tone they establish in the first few days of school will affect their students’ perception of the class throughout the year. It’s the old cliché about first impressions – they tend to shape and shade our perceptions regardless of what comes later. With that in mind, take a look at what your reps experience during their first few days on the job, particularly if you’re struggling with turnover on your sales team, suggests Lorraine Grubbs-West, a 15-year Southwest Airlines veteran and author of Lessons in Loyalty (CornerStone, 2005). Here, she says, are some of the ways Southwest sets the tone for its new hires and inspires long-term loyalty as a result.

1. Make new hires feel special. On the first day Grubbs-West reported to work at Southwest’s University for People she was ushered directly into a room where a pancake breakfast was held in her honor. The entire 25-person staff not only showed up so they could get to know her – and she, them – but each had contributed in some way to the breakfast by bringing in syrup, pancake mix, baked goods and so on. This type of event, she says, instantly immerses new employees in a company’s culture. “They immediately realize they are part of a team, not just another employee,” she says. “Therein lies a major and powerful difference between Southwest Airlines and other companies.”

2. Make orientation a celebration. We’ve all been through company orientations; most are dull, dull, dull. Executives appear and disappear and make forgettable speeches, you fill out reams of paper and other new hires are introduced who you never see again. Not at Southwest Airlines. When Grubbs-West walked into her orientation in 1989 balloons were floating around the room and there was confetti on the tables and colorful posters on the walls. The instructor met each of the 80 new hires at the door to welcome them personally. During the event they watched videos such as “The Southwest Shuffle,” which featured groups of employees from all over the company describing what their departments did, all the while dancing and singing to a rap beat led by CEO Herb Kelleher. The new hires received copies of Our Colorful Leaders, a coloring book that introduced the company’s leaders by picturing them in costumes or humorous settings and telling about their personal traits in a unique way. Many serious messages also were imparted in memorable ways. For example, one video segment included interviews with customers who had bad experiences on airlines. At the end the audience was stunned to learn the disgruntled customers were talking about Southwest. The video inspired them to ensure they didn’t make the same mistakes that led to those experiences. “Sharing the company culture is a large part of the indoctrination. As a result, new employees waste no time putting the culture into action,” says Grubbs-West. “I remember thinking, shortly after being hired, that I had finally found a workplace where I really belonged.”

3. Mentor new hires through their initial months. Even with these kinds of welcoming events the first months in any new job can be intimidating. To help steer new employees through those nerve-wracking first few months, Southwest created a mentoring program called Cohearts. Employees who volunteer as mentors receive T-shirts that read: Develop an Office Relationship. Mentors take their adoptees under their wing for six months or longer, making them feel welcome by spending time with them, sending them little gifts, taking them to lunch and helping them navigate their new company. The new employees and their mentors often are not in the same department, but the new hires are encouraged and supported during a time that might otherwise have been filled with anxiety.