Southwest Airlines Inc. turns union issues into learning experiences. As the most unionized company in the airline industry, with 85 percent of its employees belonging to labor groups, logically, that gives it the most opportunities to upset organized labor leaders.
Yet the Dallas-headquartered carrier has one of the lowest numbers of grievances filed per capita.
“We’d rather spend our time running an airline and improving our employee relations as opposed to hiring lawyers and filing grievances,” said Randy Babbitt, Southwest Airlines’ vice president of labor relations.
Babbitt attributes much of Southwest’s success to its practice of mediating before going through the formal grievance process. When the airline updated its social policy to include interactions on Facebook and Twitter, one of its labor groups called it a rights violation. They headed to the negotiation table, where both management and union mulled over the situation and came to an agreement.
Also at that table were inexperienced leaders learning hands-on. Through the company’s mentor approach, students at Southwest Airlines University get a seat at negotiations, where they can observe how experienced field practitioners collaborate with union leadership. Later they might get the chance to lead one with help from a mentor.
Southwest’s training also incorporates traditional classroom time. Elizabeth Bryant, vice president of Southwest Airlines University, said programs lay foundations by covering the history of the union, back story of the company and the development behind the current labor relationship. They also provide skills training focused on building trust, conflict management and influencing strategies.
Once employees leave the classroom, however, Bryant’s team works in the field with leaders to reinforce principles. “If we need a review on conflict strategies or a review on building relationships, we will do that,” she said. “We’ll create a customized solution for that team.”
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