The Soaring of Candidate Experience at Southwest Airlines

A case study highlighting the importance of continuous measurement and improvement.

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Feb 21, 2024

Why would we want to ask our job candidates for feedback on their recruiting experience every year if our ratings don’t change much?

It’s a great question, one that many employers have asked us over the years. Whether an employer is doing their own internal continuous candidate experience feedback or participating in our CandE Benchmark Research or both, our answer is that you should always do one or the other. Preferably including the latter if you want to compare against other employers and industries anonymously and confidentially. In fact, the reasons behind this answer depend on the previous outcomes of data being collected.

If candidate experience ratings are consistently lower than average over time (compared to our CandE Benchmark averages, for example), then most likely previously identified recruiting process bottlenecks, under-optimized technologies, and communication and feedback gaps aren’t being addressed. And so it’s possible that an internal audit is in order.

If candidate experience ratings are consistently higher than average over time, then most likely previously identified issues have been addressed, improved upon, and those improvements are being sustained. That’s a big win and a positive impact on the business (brand affinity, referrals, even revenue), and something TA leaders and recruiting teams should aspire to — and why they should measure year after year and throughout the year.

But what usually happens is somewhere in between, when the candidate experience ratings do change precipitously. For example, recruiting issues have been identified and improved upon. Then a company stops surveying and sustaining for whatever reason — economic downturns, TA turnover, M&A activity, etc. — and a few years later a new team is in place and discovers their candidate experience is in the basement again.

Our assumption is also that employers have dipped their toe into the candidate experience waters, which is not always the case. For example, business leadership may not prioritize understanding candidate experience feedback (and even employee experience) and its business impact. Or, there’s fear of knowing what TA thinks they already know, or don’t want to know, or don’t want business leadership to know. Who knows?

These are all understandable and plausible. Plus, what happens if and when you gather a bucket of experience data and don’t act on it? At some point it can stagnate your candidate pool perception of fairness and positive sentiment and repel the very same candidates you surveyed the first time (including your hires).

The reality is that only about 5% of all our CandE Benchmark Research Program participants since 2011 have consistently sustained above average candidate experience ratings for four or more years (those that win our CandE Awards). Granted, it’s always important to note that the mix of companies changes each year, but still, it’s a small percentage of companies leaning in to improve and sustain their recruiting, hiring, and candidate experience.

CandE Case Study: Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines is one of those employers that has won 7 CandE Awards to date, and here is their latest case study as to how they’re doing just that, including the data they gather, analyze, and improve upon from what they learn year after year. (You can download our latest global 2023 CandE Benchmark Research and case studies here.)

1. What changes have you made to your candidate experience recently? What improvements are you most proud of? How do you know that your changes are making a difference?

Our talent acquisition team at Southwest Airlines is dedicated to providing candidates a best-in-class candidate experience through a high-tech, high-touch approach. We have a strong relationship and partnership with our candidate relationship management (CRM) vendor to build out robust communication templates/campaigns throughout the hiring process.

From the moment a candidate or lead lands on our careers site until their first day, candidates receive Southwest-branded communication and resources that encompass the essence of our employer brand, a career with heart. We built out our EVPs in 2022 and have spent much of 2022 and 2023 building content and processes around our EVPs so that candidates feel a real difference when interviewing and considering a career at Southwest.

A few of our key improvements and changes we’re most proud of:

  • The introduction of a one-way video interview tool which allows candidates to take the time to prepare for an interview, record their responses and submit their interviews on their own time. This provides a very user-friendly and more flexible experience for our candidates during the screening process.
  • Role-specific landing pages and day in the life videos embedded throughout the hiring process. A great example is our ramp agent landing page, which provides candidates a very thorough overview of the role, the requirements, the benefits and perks, day in the life video content, FAQs, and more. This is included in lead generation awareness/apply now campaigns, in our interview scheduling communication, and so much more.
  • Pre-employee information sessions for operational roles- during the waiting period between a contingent job offer and a pre-Hires first day, we are in constant communication with selected candidates and provide them the opportunity to join optional information sessions that cover a variety of topics from what to expect, benefits overview, training overview, FAQs, and more. These info sessions are led by our pre-employee experience team and typically include members from our recruiting team or current employees in that role.

We know our changes are making a difference because of the feedback we receive from our candidates and how engaged they are during our hiring process.

2. Why did you decide to make changes to how candidates were being treated? What data or evidence prompted you to make a change?

Much like the products and services we offer to our customers change over time to better serve the customer, we do the same for our candidates. Whether that be through enhancements in the technology that we use throughout our hiring process or more personalized touchpoints, Southwest encourages a culture of continuous improvement.

We look to our CandE data, in-house Candidate Experience survey data, recruiter feedback, and ATS data to find areas of opportunity to better serve our candidates. Additionally, as we’re all keenly aware, we’re in a hyper-competitive labor market. How a candidate perceives their experience and their willingness to recommend applying to jobs at our company makes an impactful difference, now more than ever.

Our president emeritus, Colleen Barrett, whom we call our Queen of Hearts, once said, “We’re in the customer service business — we just happen to provide airline transportation.” Thanks to CandE data, we can see a direct correlation between our candidate experience and how it can impact our business and we make it a top priority to provide the best customer service to our candidates.

3. How did you build support and commitment within your team and the broader organization? How did you demonstrate the importance of candidate experience?

Hospitality is a key value that is ingrained in our people at Southwest. We’re expected to provide legendary hospitality to our customers and in TA, our customers are our candidates. It is our goal to provide a best-in-class candidate experience and be a great place to interview, no matter what the outcome for the candidate. We are honored and so proud to be recognized by the Talent Board as a CandE Winner for our 7th consecutive year.

Through our involvement with the Talent Board’s Candidate Experience Benchmark Research Program, we are able to demonstrate the value that a strong candidate experience brings to an organization like Southwest Airlines. For the last several years, we review our year over year data, identify feedback, areas for improvement and recommendations for the following year and present that information to our talent acquisition team, senior leadership and other relevant stakeholders at Southwest.

4. How do you measure candidate experience? How do you report on your recruiting process? How do you use that data to demonstrate financial impact as well as manage recruiter and hiring manager behaviors?

Earlier this year we introduced in-house, point-in-time candidate experience surveys by partnering with our employee insights team’s survey provider for employee surveys at the company. This has provided us the opportunity to collect candidate feedback and analyze it on a more granular level, by job category, department, role, and even requisition. We have not yet had the opportunity for a comprehensive data review but are excited to review this data alongside the CandE data.

We also evaluate our Glassdoor and Indeed ratings, and we review the analytics from our CRM and ATS sites. Using the Talent Board’s Candidate Calculator tool, we have been able to tie our customer value to our candidate value and better understand and communicate the financial implications of our candidate experience decisions to other stakeholders at Southwest.

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