Topic: Employee Experience


Southwest Airlines: Recognizing the Employee Journey with Heart

Southwest Airlines
North America




platform engagement


redemption rate for milestone awards

*Southwest Airlines won the 2023 Breakthrough Award for Brand in Action

Southwest Airlines has always put people first. Their purpose is to connect people to what’s important in their lives by providing reliable, friendly, and low-cost air travel. In an industry full of turbulence, their 76,000+ employees (Cohearts) live out Southwest’s Culture of teamwork and doing the right thing for their customers across more than 120 destinations. Employee recognition helps reinforce their values and demonstrate their brand in action.

“Your people come first, and if you treat them right, they’ll treat your customers right.” —Herb Kelleher, Co-Founder, Southwest Airlines


Recognition has been a longstanding part of the Southwest Culture, and in 2022 the company partnered with O.C. Tanner to create an enhanced rewards and recognition strategy.

While “I give and receive recognition” is one of twenty-seven moments on their employee journey, recognizing employees is woven throughout many of their moments that matter. “When you take a journey view of recognition and appreciation, you start to think about it differently, and you start to see there are many opportunities to have recognition touchpoints with employees,” explains Lori Winters, Vice President of Total Rewards at Southwest. The airline wanted to maximize the impact of those touchpoints.


The SWAG (Southwest Airline Gratitude) program gives all employees the opportunity to recognize and thank one another with and without points they can redeem for merchandise, gift cards, and experiences—including Rapid Rewards™ Points.

It all starts with pre-onboarding: new employees receive a welcome kit career box before their first day at work that gives them a glimpse into Southwest’s history, culture, and what it’s like to work at the airline. All new hires go to their headquarters in Dallas for onboarding and walk a red-carpet experience where they are greeted and celebrated by current employees. This gives them a sense of appreciation, belonging, and community as they start their career.

The airline uses SWAG to recognize early and often, with recognition coming from both leaders and peers. There is the Winning Spirit Program, which awards employees for extraordinary acts of service on or off the clock, and President’s Awards recognizing those who excel in their roles and embody company values consistently. Southwest also gives all employees SWAG points when the company achieves quarterly goals. All employees can send and receive recognition through the SWAG mobile app, which is loaded on all company issued mobile devices, or by giving physical recognition cards.

Southwest gives new hires an eCard with points to introduce them to the program on their 30th day at work, and a branded milestone gift at 6 months and 1 year with the company. There is a comprehensive recognition strategy for major career milestones: employees receive a Yearbook, gift selection, symbolic pin, and an invitation to a big anniversary celebration event in Dallas.

Employee life events are also recognized—both the challenges and the celebrations during an employee’s journey with the airline.

“I know our company leaders care about us as employees,” says Callie Grice, Employee Experience Consultant, Culture & Communications. “But they also truly care about our families and the people who are important to us. It makes a huge difference.”

It’s all about living out their brand and values with heart. “Southwest has always had a culture of recognition, and the SWAG platform allows us to centralize those programs,” says Tiasha Owens Mays, Senior Manager at Southwest.

“When you take a journey view of recognition and appreciation, you start to think about it differently, and you start to see there are many opportunities to have recognition touchpoints with employees” —Lori Winters, Vice President of Total Rewards, Southwest Airlines


So far Southwest has seen:

  • 97% engagement in the platform
  • 359,000 recognition moments in Q3 2023
  • 86% redemption rate for milestone awards

Employees love and enjoy all the program offerings, and senior leaders are fully supportive of SWAG. “None of this would be possible without support of the leadership team at Southwest. For them to believe in what we do, they’ve always been an advocate for our ideas and work,” says Owens Mays.

“It all comes down to our people. And when we motivate, inspire, appreciate, and recognize them for their great work, and when we empower them to be themselves, it really does make a difference for them and bonds them to the company,” says Winters. That appreciation helps all Cohearts at Southwest, no matter where they are on their employee journey, live out their brand values and work with heart for their customers.

Outcomes are everything
We’d love to share what we’ve helped Southwest Airlines and thousands of other clients achieve. Reach out to us to start your employee recognition journey.

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