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Rita Bailey, manager, corporate employment

The four women are chatting amiably about everything from their childhoods to tough problems they've faced on the job. But what might seem like nothing more than a friendly kaffeeklatsch is actually an initial job interview at Southwest Airlines Co. The four are competing for an opening in the airline's "special marketing" department, which aims to attract as passengers more businesswomen, elderly travelers, and young people.

Leading the session is Rita V. Bailey, the energetic manager of corporate employment. Dressed in blue slacks, a red polo shirt, and a cardigan, Bailey, 42, has managed to turn a potentially tense situation into two hours of relaxed conversation. It's not that Southwest takes job interviews lightly. But the airline finds that an informal approach yields more information than stiff, one-on-one meetings.

While other companies might consider human resources a backwater, the People Dept. at Southwest "is like the keeper of the flame," says Treasurer John D. Owen. Lately, the 125-member department has been taxed to its limits. Over the past four years, Southwest's staff has increased by 97%, to about 17,000 employees. Despite Southwest's breakneck growth, Bailey insists that the company won't compromise quality to speed up its hiring process. For this marketing opening, Bailey has already interviewed 22 applicants, including the four women above. And she's likely to call in an additional half-dozen for consideration.

In this case, the marketing background of the four applicants is important. But Bailey, who joined the airline 17 years ago as a ticket agent in El Paso, and Camille T.

Keith, vice-president for special marketing, seem more intent on finding a self-starter who has a willingness to pitch in on any job, even blowing up balloons for festive events. One candidate says that she has always wanted to be an entrepreneur and boasts of her accomplishments in her current job, often using the word "I." Bailey and Keith worry she'll need too much stroking and won't fare well on a team.

The Southwest managers also study subtler clues--how the candidates interact. "We just want the kind of person who can relate to everybody and everything," says Bailey. In this group of applicants, no one quite fits the bill, so there will be no callbacks. It's a time-consuming process, but Bailey has come to understand that careful hiring at the start avoids a lot of disappointments later.By Wendy Zellner in Dallas

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