Jenn ThomasDecember 20, 2023
Topics: Customer Stories

The X Factor: How To Out-Hire, Develop and Retain Talent

The success of every organization lies in its ability to efficiently hire the right people for the right job, and develop and retain them for the long haul.

But talent acquisition, talent management, and people leaders are often challenged by disparate tools and siloed strategies that sacrifice their ability to scale workforces to meet current and future demands.

Uncover the common denominator for companies that are finally solving this pervasive issue across the HR industry with insights from Janet Mertens, Head of Research at The Josh Bersin Company (JBC) and Greg Muccio, Head of TA at Southwest Airlines

Watch the entire discussion on-demand here, or catch the highlights below

Candidate Experience: What Makes a Great First Impression? 

According to Mertens, who has been immersed in talent experience research for the past 20 years, organizations need to deliver on three critical aspects for job seekers (whether external or internal applicants):

  1. Authenticity. “Job seekers today want authenticity,” said Mertens. “They don’t want just a slick career site that tells a story that isn’t true. They want to know the good, the bad, and the ugly.”  

  2. Communication. There’s no substitute for ongoing, proactive, and transparent communication — whether or not the candidate is going to be hired or not.

  3. Radical personalization. When it comes to personalization, adding someone's name to an email isn't going to cut it. What Mertens calls "radical personalization" means leveraging AI to connect people with your employer brand while simultaneously guiding them toward opportunities based on their skills, experience, interests, and location. "The more that organizations can tailor and really create those personalized experiences for candidates, the better," she said.

Muccio, who has spent 20 years in talent acquisition at Southwest — and has been a Phenom customer since late 2017 — also shared three essentials he and his team have successfully put into practice: 

  • A digital brand that conveys culture and EVP through employee-generated videos, photos, success stories, and testimonials. Candidates need to be able to visualize themselves at your organization, he said.

  • A self-serve career site experience that lets candidates explore according to their preferences (whether that’s independently, through a chatbot, or by signing up to be part of a talent community that offers job alerts, newsletters, and more)

  • Fully transparent job descriptions. As Muccio pointed out, many of the flight technician positions at Southwest involve outdoor, physical work — in every kind of weather. It’s better for candidates to know the conditions upfront instead of romanticizing important facts. Moving forward, Southwest plans to level up transparency even further with video job descriptions for their most in-demand roles.  

“Leading organizations are really thinking broadly about defining EVP for recruiting, but [also] recognizing its importance in retaining, engaging, and unlocking innovation in the employee and the workforce itself longer-term” Mertens said.  

Muccio sees this play out at Southwest. “When you’re a consumer-facing brand, the candidate and customer just really merge,” he said. The reality is that a majority of candidates are not going to be hired for a role — but their experience is still critical. “Will they still want to fly with Southwest? Would they re-apply? Would they still want to refer us to a friend?”

That is the lens through which every Southwest touchpoint is assessed. 

Learn more about Southwest's talent experience in JBC's exclusive report: Key Practices for Recruiting, Engaging and Growing Your Workforce

Southwest’s Case In Point

Southwest experienced the uncertainty that was pretty much universal during the Covid-19 pandemic. But unlike many companies, they were able to respond with extreme agility and emerged ahead of the hiring game, thanks to the unified approach of their strategy and the technology that enabled it.

In addition to keeping morale steady with transparent communication and flexibility regarding employee leave, Southwest leveraged internal mobility strategies to maintain productivity and prevent burnout among still-busy departments during hiring freezes. Muccio and his team formed a program called “Loan Your Love” that functioned like an internal temp agency, sharing workers interdepartmentally. “What’s really cool about it is some of those opportunities actually became permanent jobs,” he said. 

With tools like Phenom Talent Marketplace and Phenom Referrals, Southwest was easily able to support these efforts, tap into high-quality candidate pools, and validate the authenticity of their employer brand, which invests in employees for their full career at the airline.  

Transparent, consistent communication was also key on the external candidate side with the help of their Phenom Career Site and Phenom Chatbot, which they put to work answering questions and communicating key information to job seekers. The Chatbot also prompted candidates to create a profile and join the Southwest Talent Community so they could receive personalized updates on open roles, events, and more. “It was incredible, the number of conversions from the Chatbot to the Talent Community,” Muccio said. 

Through Phenom CRM and Phenom Campaigns, recruiters were then able to consistently keep an ongoing dialogue with Talent Community members at scale via a variety of hyper-personalized emails or texts. As a result of their combined efforts, the team was able to hire 10,000 people in the first half of 2022: 

  • 30% came exclusively from their Phenom hosted Talent Community 

  • 28% of that 30% were signed up for automated job alerts, and 26% of the hires came from their Chatbot. 


Employee Experience: Inspiring and Mobilizing Your Workforce

“There are a couple of things to think about when we look at how companies can take the lessons of really fantastic, irresistible candidate experiences and apply those to the internal employee experience,” Mertens said.

  • Encourage psychological safety around the development of new skills. Create communities focused on mentoring and coaching relationships, and work to remove cultural and process-related barriers to internal mobility.

  • Help employees with the basics. Southwest created a career mobility team that provides resume and interview tips. “We were missing out on great [internal] candidates because they didn’t have that,” Muccio said. 

  • Educate hiring managers. Hiring managers need to understand the importance of emphasizing growth and development opportunities as early as interviewing and onboarding. 

  • Elevate the visibility of career development opportunities. Companies must ensure all employees can access internal mobility resources. That means meeting employees where they are. 


Muccio advises going multichannel for the best results. For example, a sizeable percentage of Southwest’s workforce aren’t behind a desk checking email throughout the day. The team uses texts instead to communicate opportunities to these employees.

Another tip? Provide asynchronous learning opportunities that employees can engage with at their convenience. “Thinking about how to create and serve up those development opportunities and career pathways can create the foundation of a very personalized, multichannel experience. That’s a distinguishing feature of organizations that are leading the way,” Mertens said.

“There's an equity piece to this,” too, she noted:

Where Skills Fit Into the Talent Experience

Skills was one of the hottest topics of 2023 across the HR industry. Mertens and Muccio weighed in on why becoming a skills-driven organization is critical to both hiring and retention today, as well as the challenges to overcome. 

The aging workforce and high turnover rates place even greater importance on the necessary shift to evaluate a candidate’s skills, potential, and interests. “If you don't have some way to pick somebody that's on an arc … you're going to be in trouble,” said Muccio.

But being transparent about the skills required for a particular role is essential, he also pointed out. Doing so not only ensures more successful employees, it ultimately reduces turnover, he maintained. 

Meanwhile, Mertens sees a paradigm shift in the way employers are seeking talent. “We’re seeing a dissection away from ‘job’ to what is the work, and what are the skills required for that work?” she said. To that end, innovators are realizing that to fill critical roles, they may need to look outside the industry at candidates with transferrable and adjacent skills. 

What are the challenges with moving toward a skills-based approach? Most organizations are still struggling to figure out how to efficiently and accurately assess the skills they have, let alone turn that skills data into actionable insights for talent acquisition and management teams, both pointed out.

Access Phenom Skills Day on demand to discover a practical approach for applying skills across your talent acquisition and talent management teams.

The Recruiter and Hiring Manager Experience: Driving Efficiency and Impact with Tech

More efficient hiring. Happier recruiters and hiring managers. High-impact business outcomes. These are all benefits of using automation to remove friction from the recruiting process, Mertens said. 

A few tools to pay special attention to:

According to Muccio, automation in various forms helps his team achieve the right combination of high-tech and high-touch. “It’s freeing up my recruiters to do what I need them to do the most, which is find the right people for Southwest and get them into the right roles.” (Read about all the hours they're saving here)

In fact, the world’s top companies are rethinking the role of recruiters altogether. Rather than wasting their time scheduling interviews, they’re turning them into strategic talent advisors who — with the help of technology — can access people with adjacent skills who could be a good fit for a job they’ve never done. 

Similarly, these empowered recruiters now have more time to work closely with hiring managers to refine the role’s criteria and ensure an accurate job description and candidate fit. 

According to JBC, only about a quarter of companies have Hiring Manager tools in place that formalize and simplify the relationship between hiring managers and recruiters. But the ability to quickly visualize the pipeline for a particular open role, view the latest activity of a candidate, evaluate an assessment, or even prepare for upcoming interviews are all examples of data that are useful for managers.

The Power of a Unified Platform

Unifying the experience for candidates, employees, recruiters, and hiring managers is where the X factor comes into play. The benefit? No more "kitchen drawer problem”, as Bersin is fond of calling the dilemma companies face due to the proliferation of tools and the propensity to invest in point solutions that don’t talk the same language. 

For talent leaders, a consolidated platform also offers an additional highly sought-after advantage — data that’s reliable, robust yet easy to understand, and available in real time to make immediate optimizations. After all, what good is talent data if it’s not accessible, transparent, and actionable? 

“The data is the king,” said Muccio. “And when you don't have to parse data from five different systems to try and tell a story…when you can see it end-to-end and trust it, that’s huge.”

Yes. Data connectivity and data normalization is huge, especially as AI becomes ingrained in HR systems and processes. 

“We're taking it right back to that candidate experience, and using that data to correct and course correct and constantly be refining your processes to address all of those [additional stakeholder] experiences,” Mertens agreed. “That's what a unified platform can help organizations tackle.” 


Get the Josh Bersin Company's exclusive report: Key Practices for Recruiting, Engaging and Growing Your Workforce — Access Now!

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