The following explanation has been taken from a transcript of Mark Murphy’s interview with totalpictureradio:
Peter: “Mark, you use the term ‘Brown Shorts’ extensively in your book. Can you explain what that means?”
Mark: “Brown Shorts is one of those terms we debated. Should we put this in there or not put it in the book? But it’s just such a goofy, ridiculous term but it’s a highly memorable one. It’s really an homage, if you will, to Southwest Airlines, an organisation that really as much as anybody has done to shine a light on the need to hire for attitude.
“The story was originally told to them years ago by one of their executives and he said we did this interview and it was a group interview for a bunch of pilots. Pilots are very serious people. They come in dressed in a black suit or black pants, white shirt, black tie, black jacket, black over the calf dress socks, black shoe polished dress shoes, very serious group of folks, generally over 40, ex-military types, and they bring them into the interview and the Southwest people said to them, ‘Listen, we’re so happy to have you here. We want to make sure that you’re comfortable in this interview. We’re Southwest. We want you to be relaxed. So if anybody would like to relax a bit we have these brown shorts here. It’s part of our summertime uniform. We’re Southwest, we do it a little bit differently. Anybody who wants to put on this brown shorts, feel free. We’ve got them in every size. Changing room is in the back.’
“Out of the 20 people they had in this group interview, about five of the people said, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll put on the shorts.’ The other fifteen or so probably gave a look that’s similar to how a lot of your listeners right now are looking at their computer or earphones. ‘What are you nuts? I’m going to sit here in white shirt, black tie, black jacket, black over the calves dress socks, black shoe polished dress shoes in brown polyester shorts. I’m going to look like an idiot. No way am I going to be doing this.’
“The Southwest people say, ‘Great. You don’t have to put them on. Listen, we wish you all the best in your job search, best of luck. Thanks for coming in and see you. Bye.’
“What had basically amounted to was Southwest understands that one of their key attitudinal characteristics, one of the things that holds together their entire business model is not that they do low fares; it’s that the only way you get low fares to work, the only way you can have a $70 fare on a red-eye out of Vegas is to have people with a sense of humour. That’s why they board their plane so quickly. That’s why they’re able to deal with the lack of seat assignments and all the rest. That’s why every other airline who tried the Southwest model failed miserably, it was because they didn’t have that fun and sense of humour.
“Southwest said because this is so necessary, such a critical part of our business model, if you don’t have a sense of humour, even if you were a top gun instructor, we can’t have you as part of this organisation and they put that right into the interview process. You can still find people at Southwest when you ask them about the brown shorts who will still laugh and said, ‘Yep, we did that.’
“That is the issue. They said attitude is so critical that we don’t care how good a pilot you are. Yes, we want great pilots but we also want great pilots who have that sense of humour and sense of fun. If you don’t have that, you just can’t be a part of it. That’s why we said you know what, just in honour of them and their commitment to attitude, we’re going to name everybody’s attitudinal characteristics whether you’re fun, serious, team work, individualistic, whatever it is, we’re going to call them your brown shorts because that’s your special sauce. That’s the recipe that makes your culture work.”