All of Southwest's corporate policies and practices send a consistent message: "We are a serious airline and a formidable competitor, but we will have fun while earning a profit." From their very first interviews, prospective employees are immersed in the company's off beat behavior. In some interviews, for example, groups of pilots are asked to swap their suits and ties for Southwest Bermuda shorts. (Only those who comply are considered.) On average, only 4 percent of the 90,000 people who apply for work at Southwest each year are hired. In other words, Southwest is harder to get into than Harvard—all the more surprising when one considers that Southwest is a budget airline.
But the tight funnel doesn't screen out the fun lovers. In fact, they have a clear leg up. Pilots crack jokes over the intercom, contradicting the ultraserious stereotype of airline travel. The point of all the jokes? To make sure that passengers are treated to a great experience. Southwest "hires attitudes," says Kelleher. It does not believe in "leading by numbers," and it believes that "intangibles are more important than tangibles":
Our esprit de corps is the core of our success. That's most difficult for a competitor to imitate. They can [buy] all the physical things. The thing you can't buy is dedication, devotion, loyalty—feeling you are participating in a cause or a crusade.
In order to make sure that there is a proper fit between employee and company, Southwest looks for people who share its unique mix of enthusiasm, affinity for people, and off-center sense of humor. To do that, the company uses a personality test that ranks candidates—everyone from pilots to mechanics—on seven traits: cheerfulness, optimism, decision-making ability, team spirit, communication, self-confidence, and self-starter skills (score less than a 3 and you're out). Kelleher says that Southwest is no place for inflexible, rigid people:
If you're an altruistic, outgoing person who likes to serve others and enjoys working with a team, we want you. If you're the kind of person who enjoys a more secure, more regimented, more inflexible, more rule-governed type of environment, that doesn't mean you're a bad person, but we're probably incompatible. We shouldn't even get engaged, much less married.
Based on Kelleher's advice, here are two ideas that might help when your organization is interviewing candidates for an important position:
VALUE THE INTANGIBLES. Kelleher understands that intangibles are often more important than tangibles. Attitude, for example, is impossible to measure, but it has proved a huge factor in creating the culture at Southwest Airlines.
DEVELOP YOUR OWN LIST OF HIRING CRITERIA. As discussed, Southwest rates applicants on seven criteria (cheerfulness, optimism, decision-making ability, team spirit, communication, self-confidence, and self-starter skills). Make a list of the traits that are most important to you and your organization, and make sure that candidates measure up in terms of those characteristics before making them a job offer.