They come to work dressed in shorts, polo shirts, and sneakers. They're encouraged to tell jokes and have fun on the job. There's a reason Southwest Airlines is known as the fun-in-the-sky airline.

Herb Kelleher, the airline's longtime CEO and now chairman, has always believed that “a company is stronger if it is bound by love, rather than by fear.” Because of this, Southwest has based its culture around a deep respect and accountability that comes from freedom — and it has become one of the most admired companies in the world.

The company's mission is simple: Employees are our first customer.

Think about it. If your employees are not happy, how can they put on a happy face and deliver good customer service? As Kelleher has said, “If you treat them [employees] right, then they treat your customers right. And if you treat your customers right, then they keep coming back, and shareholders are happy.”

Just how committed are Southwest employees? Immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, employees began a voluntary, grassroots program to save money by working some hours without pay. The program was named Pledge to LUV. (LUV is the company's stock symbol, which was adopted to represent not only its home at Dallas' Love Field, but also its theme of customer and employee relationships. During November and December, employees were able to donate a portion of their pay — between one and 32 hours — back to the company.

How They Do It

Here are some of the little ways that Southwest keeps employees so loyal:

  • The company sends cards to all 34,000 employees on their birthday, the anniversary of their employment, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
  • Contests are regularly run just for the fun of it, such as a Halloween costume contest, a Thanksgiving poem contest, and an annual chili cookoff.
  • In 1996, when, for the fifth year in a row, Southwest had the best record among major airlines for on-time performance and for baggage handling and the fewest complaints for the number of customers carries, the company dedicated an airline to its employees, putting each one's name on the outside of the overhead bins. Now that's LUV.

Bob Nelson, PhD, is a lecturer, a president of Nelson Motivation Inc., San Diego, and best-selling author of Please Don't Just Do What I Tell You! Do What Needs to Be Done, 1001 Ways to Reward Employees, and Managing For Dummies. For more information, call (800) 575-5521, visit, or send e-mail to