Happy Employees: The Chicken or the Egg?

26 Dec Happy Employees: The Chicken or the Egg?

Southwest Airlines is well known for promoting a fun environment where employees are happy. YouTube is full of hilarious videos posted by Southwest passengers about the antics of flight attendants having fun at work.


Recently Glassdoor announced that Southwest ranked number 28 in its Employees’ Choice Awards 2017, honoring the best places to work across the US and UK. Winners are determined by input from employees.

Not only are employees of Southwest happy, but customers are too. If a passenger is willing to take the time to record and post an airline safety presentation, you can assume that they were entertained and will come back for more. You can also bet that they will tell that story time and again.

The annual American Customer Satisfaction report shows that the benchmark for customer satisfaction in the airline industry is 69. Southwest exceeded the benchmark significantly, scoring a 78 in customer satisfaction.  This data is further supported by Southwest’s Twitter page (@SouthwestAir), which is overwhelmingly positive and starkly contrasts many of their competitor’s pages, which are plagued by customer complaints.

What is the secret sauce for creating customer loyalty in an industry known for delays, bad experiences, and missed connections? And having an overwhelmingly happy workforce at the same time? It’s not really a secret at all. There is a very direct correlation between happy employees and happy customers. A better business environment leads to happier employees, which leads to an even better business environment, a cycle which results in customer loyalty.

Southwest Airlines states the following as their purpose:

We exist to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel.

How does Southwest Airline’s stated purpose lead to workplace happiness? In the article, “Southwest Airlines Motivates Its Employees With A Purpose Bigger Than A Paycheck”, published on Forbes.com, CEO Gary Kelly was quoted as saying “Southwest is a great place to work and brings the greatest joy because we have such meaningful purpose.”  Southwest has mastered the art of storytelling, frequently telling inspiring stories highlighting their humanity, as a way to show employees that they are a part of something bigger than themselves.

Zappos is another company that is well known for having happy employees and happy customers. Zappos strives to “deliver happiness”. Employees know and believe in the greater purpose at Zappos, and leaders work relentlessly to be sure that everyone sees their contribution towards that purpose.  Employees take pride in what they do knowing that the things they do everyday result in “delivering happiness” to customers.

I’ve been around business leaders who gripe that their employees are lazy, unmotivated, don’t care, and need to be micromanaged. I challenge leaders who feel that way to step back and take a look at what kind of environment they have built for their employees. Is it really that they just hired a bad bunch of employees, or could it be that they hired smart, qualified, and motivated people and put them in a bad environment?

Since we know that companies like Zappos and Southwest Airlines don’t hire all of their employees from a magical farm where employees are raised to always smile and go above and beyond for the customer, it must mean that the business environment not only affects, but also drives, how employees behave and perform. Always give employees the benefit of the doubt. When given a positive environment, noble purpose, adequate resources, and permission to succeed, employees will go above and beyond in everything they do.

Photo by: Thomas Hawk | flickr

Jennifer Eversole
Jennifer Eversole
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