How Southwest Airlines Hit a Talent Milestone With an Intelligent Talent Experience | Phenom

Jess Elmquist

September 13, 2022

Southwest Airlines understands the AI value proposition for HR better than most. The carrier just posted an incredible milestone: They hired 10,000 people since the start of the year, becoming the first U.S. airline to reach pre-pandemic staffing levels.
 

Just as impressive as that big number is who the new employees were and where they came from. They weren’t anonymous applicants from some job board. Thirty percent of those 10,000 hires were already-engaged members of Southwest’s talent community — people who opted into a relationship with Southwest and were being nurtured by their talent team.
 

I’ve been involved in human capital for more than three decades, and 30% over six months is a big number.
 

So how did they do it? (Hint: It wasn’t by listing thousands of vacancies on big job boards, expecting job seekers to come to them.) I sat down with Kelby Tansey, Manager of Recruitment Marketing at Southwest — and a real superstar in her own right — to discuss the people-first strategies that helped them achieve this landmark turning point.
 

You can check out our whole chat The Human Element of AI here, or I’ve summarized some of my favorite talking points below.
 

Staying Ahead in Any Talent Landscape


Welcoming new people into a company — and trying to guide their professional growth and development — without using artificial intelligence makes about as much sense as a jetliner with no seats.
 

What makes me say that? The majority of enterprises are still primarily dependent on big job boards to get roles filled. But job boards offer no additional benefits to the job seeker or the other talent stakeholders at the company, like their recruiters or talent management teams. In other words, everyone may eventually get to their destination, but who wants to stand the whole way?
 

Southwest doesn’t just provide seats for their candidates and employees…they roll out the red carpet. And at the center of their strategy and execution is a data driven, and personalized, AI-powered, human experience that’s also making things a heck of a lot easier for their talent teams.
 

One example?
 

When the entire aviation industry instituted a pandemic hiring freeze, Southwest featured a link on its career site homepage encouraging people to join its talent community so they could receive relevant communication and personalized job alerts when hiring resumed. This seemingly small addition had a major impact.
 

“When I pulled the data for the beginning of this year, I was actually able to see that over 200 of our hires clicked through that link and joined the talent community at that point,” Kelby recalled. “It was really cool to see that people interested in 2020 came back two years later and applied [when jobs opened up].”
 

But these types of applies don’t just happen — they’re earned by providing job seekers a fabulous candidate experience and giving them a glimpse of an equally rich employee experience.
 

The Role of Employee Experience in the Candidate Experience 


Cultivating job seekers’ interest in Southwest is a big part of what Kelby and her team do.
 

“In recruitment marketing, instead of selling your product to a consumer or even to another business, we're selling a role,” she explained. “We’re selling an entire employee experience to a candidate.”
 

What will their future look like at Southwest? What type of career opportunities will be available to them to learn and potentially move throughout the company? And how will they get there? These are the kinds of questions candidates are now asking themselves — and they’re looking at current employees within a company as a reflection of their own potential.
 

Kelby personifies a positive, growth-oriented employee experience. Over her six-year career at Southwest, she progressed from an intern to her present managerial role. Today, she oversees a team that has grown from five to 11 colleagues, all focused on employer brand, recruitment marketing, and candidate experience.
 

As an HR specialist, she was part of the core Southwest team that first used Phenom’s platform in 2017, implementing both an external-facing career site and talent CRM. By early 2021, she was leading a team and saw an opportunity to scale that team by centralizing some of the ways they were using the CRM.
 

Showing the Value of AI


But first, she had to take the crucial step of building the business case for the investment with her senior executives — making a strong argument for investing in AI to improve the experience for all talent stakeholders. You can check out my guiding principles for engineering an HR strategy that gets the C-suite buy-in it needs here.)
 

Being able to show the impact AI and automation has had on their candidate and recruiter experiences was a great proof point. How many other companies can share that AI is saving their talent teams 92,000 hours a year? And that was before they launched SMS, interview scheduling, and video assessments.
 

Clearly what they’re doing has value to the organization, which would explain why Kelby was selected to receive one of the highest awards for a Southwest employee — the President’s Award. “I always will give the credit to them for believing in me and for championing the idea that we could do some of this work,” Kelby said. “This is a recognition for the team,” she emphasized. “It shows that the work we’re doing is impactful, it's important, and it's making a difference — especially during a really tough labor market that very few people saw coming.”
 

Which goes to show that there’s no point in having a team of skilled HR professionals if CEOs aren’t going to give them the proper platform to ply their craft.
 


Building a Psychological Contract With Job Seekers


I'm a true believer that there's been a massive migration in recent years to define and really own your employer brand, using it as a “psychological contract” between employer and employee.
 

As a recruitment marketer, Kelby understands firsthand the importance of building this contract with the people you want to hire — and then following through on your promise once they're hired. It’s part and parcel of creating a distinguished, trusted employer brand, and few do this better than Southwest (whose stock ticker symbol, I might add, is “LUV”).
 

Some organizations, however, are stuck in a mindset from three generations ago — “Employees just want good pay, time off, and a nice office, and they’ll stick around for the long haul.” But that rationale has changed dramatically, especially post pandemic. Here’s how that shift is playing out at Southwest.
 


What a clever way to promote the employer brand by validating it through Southwest’s employees. Candidates get to see and hear the authenticity for themselves from the very people they may end up working alongside.
 

Career Advisers for Employees


About a year ago, Southwest started a career mobility team to serve as advisers to employees looking for a new role. As part of fostering career growth, the team reviews resumes, provides interview preparation tips, and organizes virtual day-in-the-field events similar to career fairs.
 

The key to making it all actionable and effective? Their internal talent marketplace, which empowers employees to search and apply for open internal roles and discover opportunities for learning, development, and connectivity. “It validates our employer brand framework and the fact that we invest in our employees for their full career here,” Kelby shared.
 

Also driving internal mobility and employee engagement is their amazing referral program, which they stood up in just two weeks — from idea to executive approval to internal announcement. (You can read about their amazing success with it here.) In addition to helping recruiters gain valuable quality leads, the program encourages referrers and internal referees to complete their employee profiles, sign up for job alerts, and access the career mobility team’s services.
 

By having more complete profiles, the mobility team and Southwest’s recruiters can see which employees’ skills and experience may align with a particular role and hyper-personalize their journey even further. That's part of the humanity of AI. In the past, leaders were left flat-footed without the data. Today, AI generates and builds reporting in real time. Now managers get to spend time on those more valuable, one-on-one interactions.
 

An added benefit is that all candidate data — for both internal and external candidates — lives on the same platform.
 

Invest in the Things You Believe In


If I could write a business school case study, I’d point to Southwest as an example of how AI, automation, and personalization bring out the human element in the candidate and employee experiences. How so?
 

  • They have a mission, employer brand, and values they believe in,
  • set lofty goals and build structures to support them,
  • think outside of traditional ways to connect and relate to candidates and employees,
  • build processes and measures to gauge progress,
  • then hire and support employees’ career journeys inside the organization.


HR platforms need to accommodate this dynamic approach by providing a data-driven, AI-empowered human experience that eliminates friction while delivering results. 
 

It's the personal touch that makes the difference at one of America’s biggest airlines. Southwest has invested the time and the talent in the things that matter most. Can you say the same for your organization?
 

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.