Workplace culture flying high

Passionate employees lead the way at upstart airline WestJet
By Shannon Klie
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/20/2009

Last year, when Janice Webster started as the director of recruiting at WestJet, the Calgary-based discount airline famous for its customer service and happy staff, there was no formal recruitment strategy in place.

“These incredibly passionate people were recruiting people randomly,” said Webster. “They had lots of passion and lots of energy, but no structure.”

The first test Webster faced in her new role was to hire 400 new flight attendants in six weeks. Webster, whose background is in sales and recruiting, soon found this would be quite an undertaking.

First of all, the airline usually hired 200 flight attendants a year. To double that number in about one-tenth the time seemed nearly impossible, especially considering only one in six pre-screened candidates made it to an interview and only 50 per cent of interviewees were hired.

But most importantly, the selection process was completely at odds with WestJet’s corporate culture of being a fun, friendly place to work. Employees, especially flight attendants, are known for their enthusiastic and outgoing natures. But the interview process, which consisted of a panel that asked the candidate several behavioural questions, was boring and didn’t give candidates a chance to talk about why they would be great flight attendants.

“I had to blow it up,” said Webster.

Now the process includes day-long group interviews with 20 to 30 candidates, who complete team and individual tasks that give them a chance to prove they are the kind of people who can get up and tell jokes to a plane full of people.

“It’s a lot more energetic and we give people an opportunity to shine in a group and by themselves,” said Webster.

By turning the process on its ear, Webster was able to hire 700 flight attendants in 2006, the company started 2007 with a waiting list of flight attendants and is well on its way to meet its goal of hiring another 700 this year.

An enviable culture

WestJet, with more than 6,000 employees, has been ranked a top employer on several lists, including Mediacorp’s annual

Canada’s Top 100 Employers

. Its corporate culture has been cited as being the most admired in Canada by several studies, most recently by Toronto-based executive search firm Waterstone Human Capital.

It’s the company’s culture of ownership and empowerment, the same values the discount airline was founded on 11 years ago, that makes it so respected, said Webster.

Part of that sense of ownership comes from the fact 85 per cent of WestJet employees own WestJet shares. It also comes from front-line, or guest-facing, employees being empowered to do what they think is best for the customer because the executive believes friendly service translates into a profitable airline.

“People on our front lines don’t have to ask permission to give away credits,” said Webster. “Our people are taught to make decisions that make sense for our guests and the company.”

The company does this through mentorship programs, by looking back at what decisions have had good results for the business and for not punishing people for making a decision that at the time helped a guest but in the end might not have been the best business choice.

“How can you be mad at someone who thought they were doing the right thing for a guest?” said Webster.

The fact the culture focuses so much on making customers happy might explain why employees weren’t phased by one of Canada’s largest corporate scandals, said Webster.

Last year WestJet admitted senior executives had schemed to steal confidential information from Air Canada and agreed to pay that airline $5.5 million directly in a settlement. But the scandal, which made national news, was pretty much a non-issue in Calgary, the airline’s home town.

“It really surprisingly had no impact on our front-line people,” said Webster.

She speculated that was because the scandal didn’t affect customers or their interaction with WestJet employees.

Setting the tone

The company’s language also sets the tone of the culture. Passengers are called “guests” and employees are called “people” or “WestJetters.”

Being called a guest makes a passenger feel important and creates a sense of warmth, said Webster. It also sets the tone for how employees treat passengers.

From the outside, it might look like the employees are part of a cult and they tease each other about “drinking the Kool-Aid,” said Webster, but working at WestJet is about being part of a team.

In the summer, each division hosts a backyard barbecue for the other employees and, this year, each department was given a small budget to recognize the work of another department.

When the bi-annual profit-sharing cheques are passed out, the company holds a big celebration with cake, speeches and funny videos.

“Profit share for us is a huge party,” said Webster. “It’s being part of this family that is celebrating being given a big chunk of their profit.”

WestJet is still a young company and as such it’s constantly facing challenges as it grows and changes. But employees are empowered and excited by the growth, said Webster.

“We embrace it. We expect change,” she said.

While the company’s culture will probably evolve over time as the company matures from a young upstart into a well-established corporation, the spirit of the culture will never disappear, said Webster.

“I don’t think the culture will go away,” she said. “The true nature and what it was built on will not change.”

Companies that want to emulate WestJet’s culture can’t rely on copying its programs. Programs, no matter how good they are, won’t change a company’s culture, said Webster. Instead, the culture has to be lived from the top down, she said.

“You can’t start from saying ‘We have a new benefits program and it’s going to change our culture,’” said Webster.

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