Corporate Culture Drives Decisions for Continental Airlines

Published: Mar 31, 2009

Topics: Workplace Issues       

One hundred and twenty-one punctual Continental Airlines employees have a new way of getting from point A to point B these days-brand new, fully loaded Ford Explorers, courtesy of the airline.

Continental's perfect attendance drawing, held twice a year at several locations since 1996, is a way of reinforcing the company's core culture, says Donna Towle, Continental's managing director of human resources. Entry into the drawing is not a matter of merely showing up to work every time you're scheduled. "From January 1 through June 30, or July 1 through December 31, you have to be there on time," says Towle. "One minute late means you are out of perfect attendance and out of the drawing" for the period.

The perfect attendance program, along with other Continental programs, reinforces the company's core culture by emphasizing what the company values. "Our employees are responsible for, and our product is, moving people from point A to point B, with their bags, on time," Towle explains. "If we don't focus our employees-every day-on ensuring that, we're not delivering our product. For our customers to have that, we have to have employees who come to work. When our employees don't come to work, we run the risk of not delivering our product."

'What's core to your business?' Towle's emphasis is not on simply providing what "everyone else" provides in the industry. Continental's goal is much more basic: identifying and nurturing the company's core values. "That's paramount to your success" as a company, she says. "You need to find out what's core to your business. What do you do every day that holds you out as different from the rest? Then you develop reward and recognition programs for your employees to promote the behavior that holds you out above the rest. That becomes your core culture, and you don't shift from it."

Not shifting from the core values became much more challenging after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the economy as a whole, and the travel industry in particular, suffered huge losses. "Most companies would say it's easy when times are good and companies are profitable to keep your employees happy, because you've got the money to do that," Towle says. "And believe me, when things took a turn like they did after 9/11, we were extremely concerned about how we were going to keep employees motivated, and how we were going to keep them focused on delivering the quality product we had developed.

"One of the things we determined early on was that it was extremely important that, even if this company was smaller than it was pre-9/11, it needed to be the same company. That meant we couldn't take away the core culture of this organization; we couldn't stop doing the things that we said were extremely important to our employees like recognizing good performance and having quality programs."

So shouldn't an expensive program, like giving away several $40,000 cars each year, be the first thing to go? Absolutely not, says Towle. "When we first developed the program, we said, 'This is what's important for us, that our employees need to be here every day and on time.' Even when the economy got bad, our mission didn't change. To stop rewarding employees just because times got tough did not fit our culture."

Culture comes from top. Towle ultimately credits Continental's culture to its CEO of the last 10 years, Gordon Bethune. "Gordon said when he first came on board that he was going to stop running the organization off the backs of the employees. So what we did [when times got tough] was to go out to the employees and say: 'We don't want to cut those things that are important to our culture. Help us reduce non-value-added costs.' We had a suggestion program for employees to write in and tell us what they felt we could do to save money. Last year, we took $400 million out of the budget, and this year we're focusing on another $500 million. That is truly by taking out those things that are not as important, either to our customers or to our employees."

Another employee program worth noting is Continental's on-time bonus program. "Every month we came in number one, two, or three in the [national on-time ratings], employees would get $100 for number one, and $65 if we came in second or third. That's all employees below the director level. Again, after 9/11 when things got really tough, we looked at whether or not we should continue that program. We said, 'yes, but we've got to raise the bar. The expectation in the industry is getting greater; customers want more from us.' So we decided to pay every month that we're number one in the on-time statistics, but we're not going to pay for second or third. Last year we paid it 7 out of 12 months."

A great place to work. The emphasis at Continental, Towle says, is making the organization a great place to work. "You've got to give people a great place to work. You can have a Ford Explorer program, but if they hate coming to work every day, a chance at winning a car is not going to motivate them to do that. You've got to give them a great place to work, where there's work/life balance, they feel good about the contribution they make, and they're recognized for that contribution. And you don't waver from your core values as an organization."

Part of what makes Continental a great place to work, says Towle, is providing opportunities for employees to give back. "We look at giving back to the community, giving to [each other] in times of need, and helping each other grow in terms of education," she says. Proceeds from an annual casino night last year generated nearly $400,000, which will go to Continental's employee scholarship fund. Employees or their dependents earn scholarships based on merit and on financial need, and they can last from 1 year to 4 years. "Other companies do scholarship funds," says Towle, "but a lot of them are funded by the company. This is truly based on fundraising and employee contributions." They also support United Way and an internal charity called WeCare. "WeCare is a charitable organization that helps Continental employees in need," Towle explains. It is funded by contributions that employees make. When there was a hurricane in Bermuda, we had six employees who lost power, and we were able to buy generators for them. That's 100-percent funded by employees."

"Most of these ideas really come from the employees," Towle says. "We value their input and try to get it in every venue we can. We give employees access to corporate communications through an e-mail box. And employees can call Gordon any time they have suggestions and, believe me, he responds. He gets phone calls and e-mails every day from employees with suggestions, or congratulations, or asking for help."

The bottom line, Towle says, is that your corporate values should drive your benefit policies and programs. "Identify your core culture, and don't shift from it," she says. "Make the commitment and stick to what you've committed. It can't be a fair-weather program; it can't be when times get tough, it's the first thing to go. It has to be the last thing to go before you turn out the lights." And judging from Continental's successes, that policy is a good one. "We get a lot of risumis," says Towle, and you can hear the smile in her voice.