How to make great employees feel special

Southwest Airlines and Marriott Hotels put employees first. The mutual regard and camaraderie are manifested in multiple ways, including customer service and loyalty to the company.

The secret to employee retention is not to reinvent the wheel, but to emulate the practices used by organizations that are successful at keeping their staff.

Two such organizations are Marriott Hotels and Southwest Airlines. Both have extremely low staff turnover, while consistently posting profits.

The underlying basis of their success is that they provide for the basic emotional needs of their employees in a manner that creates lasting ties to the organization.

Both organizations believe that if you take good care of your employees, they will take good care of their customers. As Maya Angelou said, “People will often forget what we said, but never how we made them feel.”

Employees come first

Publicly, both organizations have defied the usual “customer first” strategy and state that their employees come first. They have discovered that the best way to ensure customer satisfaction is to have happy, motivated employees, which will result in having people who have a strong vested interest in keeping customers satisfied.

Employees that are loyal and heavily invested in an organization will naturally desire to do things that keep and increase a loyal customer base. As company founder J.W. Marriott said, “Take care of associates, and they will take care of customers.

Creating a culture and communicating it

Both organizations hire based not so much on technical skills, but on attitudes, teamwork abilities, and a natural inclination toward friendliness and service. Though some might argue that not hiring for skills means more training, both Southwest and Marriott have found that employees that have the right attitude tend to pick up skills faster and adapt quicker than those hired only for skills.

Most organizations post in their recruitment communication with generic terms such as “good team players wanted.” Southwest Airlines has gone far beyond and identified the personality traits of the type of person that will make a successful employee.

In their recruitment ads one finds assertions such as, “If you want to have fun, this is the place to work! This is a place where you can be yourself, where it’s okay to be irreverent, where you will be loved and valued. We love our employees, we trust our employees, who in turn work very hard to give Positively Outrageous Service (POS) to our customers.”

To differentiate themselves from other employers who look for attributes such as advanced degrees, professional conduct, and adherence to strict dress codes, Southwest advertises that “professionals need not apply.”

This clear understanding and communication of the type of person Southwest is looking for serves as a valuable self-screening tool for applicants — attracting people who are looking for and will fit well into the environment and dissuading those who would not be interested in applying. Having done an excellent job of branding itself, Southwest has tapped into a steady supply of the “right kind of people.”

Model your culture starting from the top

At Southwest, having fun is taken seriously and modeled at all levels in the organization.

Former CEO Herb Kelleher was known to do stunts such as dressing up as Elvis. New employees are shown funny videos such as “The Southwest Shuffle” set to a rap beat in which employees describe their roles in the organization. Leading off is the chairman, who is also introduced as the chief DJ.

Immerse new employees right away

The sooner new hires are made to feel part of the organization, the better. Southwest puts great effort into making its newest employees feel special and a valued part of the organization from the moment that they are hired.

There’s no sitting down and reading the policy manual. One of the new staff hired to work in the University For People (called the HR department in more formal organizations) was surprised to find on her first day that the department was holding a pancake breakfast in her honor. Everyone in the organization takes part in welcoming new staff and making them feel part of the family.

A program called “Cohearts” matches volunteer longer-term employees to new hires. A seasoned staff member takes a new member under his or her wing for six months.

Their role is to ensure that the new person always feels supported and embraced. Among the ways that “Cohearts” does this is by spending time with newcomers, buying them small gifts, and taking them out to lunch.

These efforts result in powerful bonds and long-term friendships.

Ongoing training and career opportunities

Both organizations invest heavily in their employees, both in terms of workplace training and opportunities, ensuring that they never feel that they have reached a dead end.

Both Marriott and Southwest offer ongoing training in leadership, new software upgrading, career development, and operations. This gives employees a sense that there are always opportunities for learning and advancement.

Look after people in good times and bad

Southwest’s corporate culture involves looking after your own.

While stressing hard work, the company puts stock in celebrating just as hard. Impromptu parties with executives dressing in funny outfits happen frequently. Having fun is an integral part of their culture, because an employee that is having fun is a happy employee.

The company believes that looking after their employees extends to the families as well. Family events are held regularly. When tragedy strikes, or an employee or family member becomes ill, other employees deliver meals and offer support that goes well beyond that found in most workplaces.

Leaders at all levels maintain a support network that keeps updated on events going on in employees lives, good or bad. It is common for Southwest employees to have meals delivered, rides provided, or houses cleaned when they or members of their family are hospitalized or ill.

Beyond compensation and benefits

Beyond salary and benefits, an employer that can make the workplace a setting where employees can meet their needs for advancement, a feeling of being cared for, and having fun will retain staff regardless of the economic environment.

Companies like Marriott and Southwest have been highly successful due to hiring the right employees based on attitude, teaching them the skills necessary for the job and creating the type of environment that they never want to leave.

Harvey Deutschendorf is an emotional intelligence expert and internationally published author of THE OTHER KIND OF SMART, Simple Ways to Boost Your Emotional Intelligence for Greater Personal Effectiveness and Success. A version of this article originally appeared on

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