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"Trust"​: The Secret Sauce To Getting (And Keeping!) Great Employees

by Dr. Darla Shaw, SPHR, MBA, MLS, PhD.

Many years ago I was waiting at the airport and, of course, like everyone else, I was absorbed in my phone, trying to pass the time until boarding time. Cue the Southwest Airlines employee nearby who starts performing stand-up comedy right there in the middle of the airport terminal!

Suddenly I am NOT bored or trying to answer emails. I’m enthralled by this guy who has everyone…. including this very serious looking executive in his perfectly tailored business suit…. practically rolling and crying with laughter! He pulls out $50 gift cards and starts randomly asking trivia questions, tossing them to the people waiting for their Southwest Airlines flight.

Okay, now I’m depressed, because my flight is not on Southwest, so I can’t participate or get a gift card, and my poor flight attendants are far too tense and stressed to so much as crack a smile, then alone a joke.

Unable to help my inevitable HR curiosity, I go over to the Southwest employee (as I still have a couple of hours left) and ask him if he was hired by Southwest specifically to perform this stand-up routine.

“Nope,” he says with a big smile. “They just said to keep people entertained however we can. Some of us sing, some of us rap, some of us do stand-up! I do comedy clubs on the weekends and so this is my talent.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A company that asked people to bring their unusual talents to work? I had heard about Southwest, but never flew them before.

“What about liability? I mean, isn't your company worried you’ll say an offensive joke and upset someone and they’ll get sued?” I asked.

My compliance mind was always thinking about things like that, as I was currently working for an organization that was very risk adverse. No one even breathed without a policy to tell them how! Deviate from said policy or work procedure and you were immediately written up. No one made a serious move or decision without the lawyers or executives being involved! Employees did NOT speak to clients without carefully rehearsed scripts. Every detail was micro-managed, from the VPs down to the guys on the production floor, to the sales team out in the field.

We were told this was how it should be.

It was normal for managers not to trust that their employees were actually sick when they called in. Hours… for both exempt and non-exempt employees… were watched like a hawk.

Bereavement? You BETTER have an obituary or something from the funeral home to back up that someone actually died.

Secrets were kept and information was withheld and guarded by only those worthy to be “in the know”, leaving rumors and gossip to spread like a sickness on the ground floor. The lack of information, communication and transparency drove the perception that the company couldn’t be trusted any more than the company trusted their people.

Oh, and if you think you can have an idea of your own and implement it without it going through at least a dozen approvals, you are SO mistaken! No original ideas. Ever.

Being still young in my HR career though, it utterly baffled me how a company could function without these systems in place. Surely someone was going to get sued if people were allowed to rap battle on a plane!

And then he said something that changed my entire HR world.

“Oh no, they trust us. We get a lot of training on diversity and legal considerations and business ethics, and of course there’s some general guidelines. But for the most part, they get out of the way and just let us do our jobs and keep the customers happy! That’s why I love working here. I get to be me and I love making people laugh! I worked for [redacted airline] too for a while. I didn’t stay long. They actually fired me for poor performance. They fire a lot of people for that.”

Mind… BLOWN!

A company… trusting… their employees. Just giving them training and guidelines and then getting out of their way to let them do their job! Allowing them to be CREATIVE and to use the talents not just on their resume! And not only did this method apparently ensure this employees loyalty (he “loved” his job, and that is an emotional word!), but the methodology apparently made the company even more successful as whole.

For those of you who don’t know, Southwest is one of THE most profitable airline companies, and from that day forward, if ever I had a choice, I always flew Southwest. They earned my business thanks to this one employee.

I can only imagine the "other airline" this guy used to work for. As we talked, he told me about how demotivated he was while working there. His every move was monitored, questioned, and if he deviated from policy even a little, he was written up.

Same employee; two different results! One company considers him a performance problem and the other turns him into a top performer who even trains other new employees.

Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that employee and how much he taught me about workplace culture and how the environment you create is what determines what you get out of your people.

Like that employee, I too did not stay where I was at for long, because my company didn’t trust me. Even though I was “HR”, my every decision had to be justified, my every move questioned. I started pushing back, trying to explain why our turnover was so high! Why our productivity was so low and why morale and engagement and our general overall workplace culture was in jeopardy.

If you don’t trust the people you hire, then that’s a YOU problem. You either made a poor hiring decision, or you're too insecure as a leader to get out of your peoples way to let them do the job you hired them for.

I’m not saying everyone is 100% worthy of trust. There are always a small percentage who will abuse your systems and do not have your company’s best interests at heart, but that’s no reason to punish everyone else! For the most part, if you treat employees with respect, give them the freedom to fail and mess up (yes, you need to let them lose a client or screw up a project so they can learn!), and create an environment where they are free to be themselves… then something magical will happen.

Your employees will start to trust you back… and then you will have employees just like the Southwest guy… and they won’t ever want to leave..

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