Southwest Airlines’ CEO asked what turned out to be a $150-million-a-year question; in a company whose culture is defined by teamwork, why are employees calling in sick when they aren’t and leaving their coworkers scrambling to fill in for them?
It’s not news that sometimes employees call in sick when they aren’t. But last-minute absenteeism was causing major challenges at Southwest, to the point that the CEO made it a top priority. Southwest’s Communications team knew they had a high-impact opportunity on their hands, if they could crack the behavioral case on absenteeism.
CEC’s latest research shows that at the heart of nearly every business goal is a stakeholder behavior—a physical action, not just a perception—that the organization wants to change. We’ve learned that the reason for stakeholders not doing something is often a communication breakdown, like mixed signals, incomplete information, or not seeing their peers or leaders modeling the behavior.
So Southwest’s Communications team was going to come up with a way to get employees to voluntarily stop calling in sick, but they had to avoid three common stumbling blocks:
- Communicators usually have a lot of information available through various feedback mechanisms but we fail to synthesize it well or apply it to the right behavior change.
- We usually don’t spend much time listening until the end of an initiative, to see how it went and think about what to do better next time.
- Listening efforts are frequently biased towards known communications solutions and desired stakeholder attitudes, but fail to uncover the real barriers to stakeholders’ desired action.
Before jumping to common Communications solutions meant to build awareness – like a poster stating the costs of absenteeism to the company – the team spent time looking at new and existing listening efforts to uncover the true drivers of the behavior. They discovered that employees didn’t realize the extent to which calling in sick affects their coworkers and the behavior was reinforced by their peers’ similar behavior.
What they heard again and again was that the self-proclaimed LUV airline’s employees were very proud of their willingness to go above and beyond for customers – and their coworkers. It all came down to social cues; a lot of people called in sick when they weren’t, so it became socially acceptable. There wasn’t enforcement from management to correct the perception, further reinforcing that it was ok.
Southwest’s Communications team built a campaign targeted specifically at helping employees recognizing that calling in sick was hurting their coworkers. They didn’t need a new Communications toolkit, but spending time making sure they correctly applied the ones that did have made all the difference.
Southwest saw a 15% reduction in absenteeism attributed to the communication campaign, saving the company an estimated $150 million in savings each year. The key to Southwest’s success was figuring out which buttons to press. From posters to blogs, they clarified the impact of employee absenteeism and employees changed their behavior to align with the new social cues that were created.
What excites you the most about focusing your team on changing stakeholder behavior? And what do you find scary about the idea – what will be difficult to execute? To join the debate with your peers, register for a regional executive roundtable near you.
- Removing Stakeholder Behavior Roadblocks (Southwest Airlines)
- Behavior Change: Stakeholder Psychology
- Project Evaluation Scorecard