Category Archives: employee satisfaction

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.”

A New Forum for Employee Complaints

 

angryYesterday the New York Times ran a story that examined Starbucks’ attempts to rectify the difficult working conditions uncovered by an earlier Times investigation, which profiled Starbucks employees who were forced to do “clopenings” (staying late to close stores only to have to rise at the crack of dawn to open them again) and who were given very short notice of work schedules and schedule changes.

The latest piece reports that the Seattle-based coffee chain seems to be falling short in changing these practices, which it had promised to do in the wake of the earlier report. What I find notable is that the story cites a report by the Center for Popular Democracy, which had reached out to Starbucks baristas via a website called Coworker.org.

You’ve no doubt heard of the employer reviews posted by workers on Glassdoor and Simply Hired, in which employees can grouse about the managers and working conditions at their company. Coworker.org, which was founded in 2013, lets disgruntled workers take things a step further by organizing campaigns to address those complaints. It’s similar to Change.org, which lets users launch campaigns to attract supporters for their cause.

Recent campaigns launched on Coworker.org include an effort to push Netflix to add its hourly DVD workers to its recently announced unlimited-leave policy for new parents (it’s garnered almost 8,000 signatures of support so far), a petition for US Bank to rehire a whistleblowing employee (about 6,400 signatures) and to push Starbucks to do away with clopenings (about 10,500 signatures). Other campaigns seem to have a more millennial vibe (let supermarket employees wear beards, restaurant employees show their tattoos).

Coworker.org is funded via the Citizen Engagement Laboratory, a liberal foundation based in Berkeley that’s been the target of ire from conservative news sites such as Breitbart News. Its co-founders are Michelle Miller (whose experience includes a decade at the Service Employees International Union) and Jess Kutch, whose experience also includes a stint at the SEIU (notice a theme there?).

Regardless of its affiliations, Coworker.org represents just one of a growing number of platforms for employees to sound off about mistreatment (real or perceived) and unfair labor practices — and for companies to find themselves the target of negative, and possibly viral, publicity.

 

A Cup of Reality for Starbucks?

In the world of coffee retailing, there’s little question Starbucks has been an innovator, experimenting (often successfully) with new product offerings and fine-tuning the customer experience on a regular basis. But it’s also no secret that Starbucks hasn’t limited its innovation to just these areas. It’s also been a pioneer where employee practices are concerned, launching cutting-edge initiatives in areas such as health benefits, tuition support and career development.

Starbucks_West_CoastBecause of these programs and others, Starbucks leaves many of its competitors in the dust when it comes to Glassdoor ratings, earning 3.8 stars out of 5 and supposedly beating the industry average by a wide margin. In comparison, Dunkin Donuts earned 2.8 and Peet’s Coffee earned 3.2 on Glassdoor.

But if we’re to believe a recent analysis conducted by San Francisco-based Monitor 360 that takes a closer look at the Starbucks narratives smattered throughout the Glassdoor reviews, the Seattle-headquartered employers isn’t without some noticeable blemishes.

Monitor 360, a former unit of Monitor Group that was spun off a few years back, recently applied its Narrative Analytics methodology to Starbucks’ Glassdoor reviews in order to identify sentiments and themes contained in the comments. (Earlier this week, Kevin Rockmael, chief marketing officer at Monitor 360, shared a report detailing the findings with me.) As you might expect, the report contained a lot of positive feelings. But it also revealed some definite “needs improvement” areas.

On the positive side, the report found that more than 60 percent of employee comments expressed confidence in Starbucks’ senior leadership and company vision. “The three narratives that comprised this coverage—’Starbucks the Star,’ ‘Grueling with a Shot of Great,’ and ‘ “Ground” by Middle Management’—focused more on employees’ pride in Starbucks’ vision and values than on benefits,” the report said, “suggesting that consistently delivering an inspiring narrative about the value of employees to the company can motivate as much as offering free lattes.”

Additionally, the first two narratives suggest that Starbucks can be an exciting place to build a career.

As for the negative, narratives such as “Part Time Pariah” and “Baristas are the Backbone” emerged that bemoan the difficulties of building a career at Starbucks — revealing one critical driver of employee turnover. The report points out that these were less prominent than the positive narratives about the company’s vision and values, but still comprised a disturbing 31 percent of total employee comments.

Meanwhile, the report continued, “The ‘Ground’ by Middle Management” narrative suggests that “many employees who have a positive view of Starbucks as a corporation simultaneously hold major concerns about middle management. Many view middle managers as out of touch — visiting stores infrequently and promoting those who are undeserving. This suggests that leadership’s efforts to brand Starbucks as a place for opportunity resonate deeply with employees on an emotional level, but that same vision is not regularly communicated by local company leadership, nor does the inspiring vision always match the day-to-day reality.”

A fourth narrative, something the report’s authors labeled “Glorified Fast Food,” suggests some internal and external brand-facing challenges. As far as the internal implications are concerned, the report contends that this narrative reflects employees’ beliefs that “Starbucks is losing its identity as a specialty brewer, suggesting that replacing the art of brewing with increased mechanization can damage retention.”

I asked Rockmael for his thoughts on the report’s biggest surprises. He said the narratives having to do with middle management and glorified fast food were at the top of his list. In the case of the latter, he added, the analysis suggests that employees and former employees are connecting Starbucks more to the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King than management would like.

Rockmael told me this is the first time Monitor 360 has used Glassdoor to uncover these types of narratives, but it may not be the last. (Glassdoor, he said, gave his firm permission to conduct this analysis.)

He also noted that Monitor 360 hasn’t shared the findings directly with Starbucks, at least not yet. But were it to do so, I’d have to think Starbucks might consider some of the more bitter ones worthy of further reflection.

 

Forming a Different Kind of Alliance

Trust. Loyalty. Lifetime employment. I think most of you would agree these words don’t really apply to today’s workplace.

ThinkstockPhotos-181678934As Ben Casnocha pointed out during his keynote yesterday at the SHRM Talent Management Conference—conveniently taking place this week just a few city blocks from the ERE Recruiting Conference I also attended—companies such as General Electric used to treat employees like “family” and offer them lifetime employment. But as we all know, factors such as globalization and technology forced employers to abandon such approaches decades ago.

Casnocha, an entrepreneur who co-authored with LinkedIn Founder and Chairman Reid Hoffman and Wasabi Ventures Partner Chris Yeh a book titled The Alliance: Managing Talent in a Networked Age (published last July by the Harvard Business Review Press), noted that a General Electric executive once described job security as one of GE’s prime corporate objectives. The year: 1963.

It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that today, right?

More recently, Casnocha said, many companies have embraced the other extreme: the free-agent model. True, he explained, that model does provide both employers and employees with the upside of greater flexibility; but it doesn’t build the kind of relationships that are needed to innovate.

“Would you do your very best work knowing you might not have a job the next day?” he asked.

For those of you who haven’t read The Alliance, Reid, Casnocha and Yeh make a compelling case for a third model that treats employees as “allies.”

“Think about any great alliance between countries, companies and people,” Casnocha said. “In an alliance, both sides commit to adding value. It’s a relationship that’s characterized by mutual trust, mutual investment and mutual benefit.”

Both the employer and the employee need to be adaptable in order for such a model to work, he added.

Employers, Casnocha said, need to “look the employee in the eye and say, ‘We’ll help transform your career, even if that means your career takes you to a different company someday.’ ” As for the employee, he or she “needs to say, ‘If you can make my LinkedIn profile look more impressive by having worked here, I will do great work [for you] and make a meaningful contribution to the company … .”

In his talk, Casnocha also touched on tours of duty, in which employees embark on a specific “mission.” (Once one tour of duty is completed, a new one is then defined.)

Alliances are especially effective, Casnocha pointed out, when it comes to “super-talented employees” who can really move the needle in your company. “What fires [these] employees up more than anything,” he said, “is the opportunity to transform themselves, the company and the world.”

To be sure, it’s a collaborative effort.

Casnocha told the story of one manager who printed two copies of an employee’s LinkedIn profile (so both the manager and the employee would have copies). Together, the two went through the profile, circling those parts that mattered most to the employee and writing in how that person might like to see it read two or three years from then.

On the subject of millennials, Casnocha asked: Which is better for their careers: Giving them a new title? Or telling them that you’re going to help them have conversations with three of the most important people in the industry?” (Hint, it’s not the first. Because, as Casnocha explained, people can take their networks and relationships with them when they leave.)

The Mindfulness-Retaliation Connection

Two researchers from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School came up with an interesting connection 166198718 -- meditation2between mindfulness and employee retaliation that has me drawing a further connection of my own.

The Kenan-Flagler study by Ph.D. student Erin Cooke Long and Professor Michael S. Christian suggests practicing mindfulness at work, which can incorporate workplace meditation, can actually reduce retaliatory behavior in employees who feel treated unfairly. (Here’s the study’s abstract.)

I suppose this can be seen as intuitive, but it’s apparently the first time mindfulness and retaliation have been connected in any study. As Cooke Long describes it:

“When employees think they have an unfair boss or colleague or the organization is unfair, they might be tempted to seek retribution or act in ways to ‘even the score.’ Mindfulness helps them short-circuit emotions and negative thoughts so that they can respond more constructively.”

Which gets me to my additional connection: How bout keep them mindful and meditating, and perhaps you can keep the unions from knocking at your door? Perhaps we can add “incorporating mindfulness into your workforce” to the many suggestions experts and attorneys offered in a recent webinar I blogged about the day before the National Labor Relations Board’s “quickie-election” rule went into effect.

Everyone speaking in that webinar agreed the rule — which became effective April 14 — would increase union activity and win rates within the business community.

And as Jeff Harrison, a Minneapolis-based Littler shareholder, said then, employers should be looking more closely at their people issues than ever before, because unhappy employees make for likely union members.

“Are your people treating your people right?” he said, because it’s those types of complaints — treatment ones — that “are almost always behind” employees being driven to unionize.

At the risk of making another bold connection, my sources for this blog post on the importance and difficulty of bringing mindfulness into the workplace — including our benefits columnist, Carol Harnett — would concur that offering such a stress-reducer certainly sends the message that employees are being treated well.

And if the UNC study is to be believed, which I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be, perhaps mindfulness can also keep their minds off “getting back” at you through protected concerted activities.