I'd like to believe that Southwest is known for not treating People, either Customers or Employees, like numbers. It wouldn't fit with our Corporate Culture. Yeah, numbers are a big part of any business--and we have a lot of departments that crunch, compile, chart, and report numbers. Numbers measure. Numbers represent progress and gains and losses. Numbers project and forecast and summarize. But a number can't describe a person--can it?
In a way it can. Do you remember what it was like to go from being a freshman to a sophomore in high school? This little passage brought you up a step from the bottom rung of the ladder, and it was really huge. It didn't make you better, or that much different. But it did give you that "I've been around a little--I've seen some stuff" swagger to your step. Out here at the airport, we don't wear our "class" years on the sleeves of our jackets, but boy, do we pay attention to numbers.
Southwest is a Company of over 32,000 people, each of whom has their own Employee number, and the numbers are assigned in order of your hire date. The older (in terms of seniority, of course) the Employee, the lower the Employee number. I was in a class at the University for People where we had to form a line, as fast as we could, in order of seniority--without talking. Everyone immediately grabbed their ID badges and compared numbers to see how quickly we could sort through 28 people with a range of service from 18 years to 18 months. I was thrilled to see that one of my classmates from Las Vegas had a number only two off of mine--it turned out we were hired within a day of each other. But he was "senior" to me, and he kidded me about it for the rest of the week. It was a terrific example of how that little number mattered.
I've seen our numbers grow by the thousands, and the tens of thousands. I've heard the change of inflection in the question: "Your Employee number starts with 20,000?" Once that meant I was new. Now it seems like permission to question my memory and my ability to digest solids.
As each new addition to the Southwest family comes aboard and gets his or her "number," he or she passes a little something up the line to those of us here to welcome them. It serves as a reminder that we're fortunate to be here leading new People, doing work that we like, for a Company that sees us as more than just a number.
I don't know how long it will be until the New Hires have six digits, and I wonder how my "20,000" will look to them. It won't take long for even these Employees to look at their "low" numbers with pride and accomplishment. You can count on that.