San Antonio, Texas — Contractors should put their employees first and customers second, Southwest Airlines Vice President Dave Ridley told contractors meeting here. Happy employees will take good care of the customers anyway, a formula that has worked well for Southwest, Ridley explained at the Mechanical Service Contractors Association's 23rd Annual Education Conference in mid-October.

In a session that the contractors rated highly, Ridley explained Southwest's three-step process of hiring right, creating the right culture and proper leadership. He noted that Southwest is unionized, just like all the other major airlines.

An organization can't cede all the “healthy stuff” to human resources, he said. All good organizations are smart, he noted, with well-educated, well-trained, experienced people in all the right places. They're good at all the measurable metrics. But beyond a high level of competency, a successful organization has to be healthy with a minimum of office politics and confusion, high morale and low turnover.

You can hire easy and manage tough or hire tough and manage easy, Ridley said. Contractors too often hire easy, he noted. If an employee makes $30,000 a year for five years, that $150,000 decision is often made in 30 minutes. How many contractors would make a $150,000 investment in a piece of hardware after 30 minutes of research, Ridley asked his audience.

Contractors should think about their best employees and their worst - what are their characteristics? Write down your core values and stick to them, he suggested, such as trustworthiness, tradition, teamwork, integrity, hard work and creativity. Then ask yourself, Ridley said, do those words really mean anything to you or your company.

For its part, Southwest looks for three things in its employees. The first is a warrior spirit, the willingness to put in an honest day's work for a day's pay and the willingness to “slay all the dragons” along the way. The second is a servant's heart, which Ridley said can't be trained; it has to be hired. The third is a fun-loving attitude. Southwest has had competent people who took themselves too seriously, and they didn't last.

When interviewing and hiring, Ridley invoked The Rule of Three. Interview three candidates, even if it's a no-brainer on who gets the job. Interview the final candidate three times. And have three different people interview the candidate. Ridley said that Southwest has even gotten valuable insights on prospects from the receptionist when the candidates come into the building for their interviews.

Contractors should be rigorous but not ruthless in retention. They should build the right culture to make employees feel valued. He noted that people are not “human capital,” because equating them with tools is demeaning.

Finally, contractors have to lead the right way. Southwest believes in No BS Leadership, that is, no big shots tolerated. The company believes in leading according to the Golden Rule, putting themselves in the position of the workers. There's a big difference, he said, between positional authority - “I'm the boss” - and moral authority in terms of leadership. Southwest wants its leaders to be humble, hungry and smart.

A leader is also never off the clock, Ridley said. He should remember who he is and who he represents on Saturday as much as he does Monday through Friday.

Ridley concluded with a quote from humorist Dave Barry that he believes is one of the better insights into human nature: “A person who is nice to you but is rude to a waiter is not a nice person.”