Amazon Really, Really Wants Employee Input

You may have seen that Amazon.com is back in the news.

Roughly two months ago, a stinging New York Times report characterized the work environment at the Seattle-based online retail giant as one where employees were often held to unreasonable standards, occasionally reduced to tears and essentially rewarded for undermining their peers.

More recently, though, Amazon has made headlines for its attempt to connect in a meaningful way with these same workers, and solicit more frequent input with regard to their job satisfaction, leadership opportunities within the organization and more.

In expanding its Amazon Connections program, the company is now posing daily—that’s right, daily—questions on these and other job-related topics to white-collar employees. (Amazon started the program with blue-collar workers in its fulfillment centers in 2014, and has been introducing Connections to other departments throughout the past year, according to Bloomberg Business.)

The responses that Amazon collects will be evaluated by teams in Seattle and Prague, who will compile daily reports to share with the company, according to the Bloomberg piece, which notes that individual employees’ answers and comments “aren’t anonymous, but are shared only with members of the Connections team, and the reports will contain only aggregated data.”

Amazon is clearly making a concerted effort to improve its employee experience, regardless of how much its workplace does or doesn’t resemble the soul-crushing corporate hellscape some envisioned after reading the aforementioned Times piece. But is asking employees to complete these quasi-surveys every day overcompensating? Will workers welcome the chance to share their two cents so often, or will they begin to look at providing constant feedback as a chore?

I put these questions to Katalin Takacs-Haynes, an assistant professor of strategic management at the A. Lerner College of Business and Economics at the University of Delaware.

As is the case with any other new initiative, there are pros and cons, she says.

“On the plus side, it’s great that Amazon realizes it needs to address the issues raised in the [Times article], and is trying to address the issue by initiating internal communication with the employees,” says Haynes. “Also on the plus side, the fact that special teams in Seattle and Prague are going to compile an anonymous report might encourage employees to provide feedback openly.”

While said reports are anonymous, employee responses are not, however.

That, she says, could be a problem.

“This can raise concerns in some employees who might be afraid that sharing their opinions openly will lead to retaliation,” says Haynes. “Job security might be a concern for some who feel that being too open … appears as being critical and leads to termination or lack of promotion.”

Ultimately, the biggest concern for Amazon is that “[despite] its best intentions, it might not get the honest and open answers it’s looking for.”

The expansion of Amazon Connections may well be a reaction to the Times report, “particularly since Jeff Bezos seems to have taken that very personally,” adds Rita Gunther McGrath, associate professor of management at the Columbia Business School in New York.

But, regardless of why Amazon implemented it, the program could wind up being an effective communication tool, especially among millennial employees “who thrive on little bits of quick interaction and feedback, rather than a ponderous annual review process,” says McGrath.

“It also functions as an accelerator of information flows and a way of assessing how significant an issue is,” she says. “If one person says it, it may well be a fluke. If 1,000 people say it, it’s a meaningful issue.”

So, with all that said, and the potential plusses and minuses tallied, should we expect to see similar programs popping up in other organizations?

“A few companies might jump on the bandwagon,” says Haynes. “However, unless a company is in the spotlight like Amazon was, it lacks a legitimate reason to institute such a high-profile feedback system. Such a system can be irritating to employees and reflect a misuse of resources such as employee time and human capital in exchange for information of questionable quality.”

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