The recent stories about Amazon's workforce show the perils of taking a granular or too data-centric approach to performance management.
When a company’s internal motivation tactics are raising shudders around the world, something has gone wrong. A recent New York Times piece on the culture within Amazon has reached many eyes in the past few days, describing a model that tends to push personnel beyond their breaking points.
“Looking at criticized practices could help leaders design more reasonable employee recognition schemes.”
What can organizations learn from this report? Should they just look away and be glad their organizations aren’t so strict? In fact, looking at the practices singled out for criticism could be an important element in designing more reasonable and user-friendly employee reward and recognition schemes. Leaders who realize what Amazon was trying to accomplish and where things went wrong can employ that knowledge when it’s time to stoke motivation within their own organizations.
Pushed too hard
The New York Times piece quickly reveals tears – Amazon employees are described weeping openly at their desks due to the strain of their workloads. The source pointed out that the pressures causing trouble for employees are actually fairly common in the business world. Amazon has been quick to the punch in employing technologies and tactics that keep a close watch on what individuals do, and thus has become an emblem of this world. The fact that this development led to an expository article on the human cost shows clearly that such a granular focus on motivating each worker can have unintended and damaging consequences.
Traditionally, harsh employment conditions have led to a very predictable outcome – people who have a bad experience may leave the company. Along with the new level of tech-driven pressure being put into place at Amazon has come a very modern consequence: a satirical article in The New Yorker’s “Borowitz Report” based around the invented premise that Amazon will introduce a new process called “Next Day Purging.” The business is now a symbol of harsh workforces worldwide – not an enviable position for any organization to be in. The joke piece was shared via social media, spreading the negative image further.
As The New York Times pointed out, one of the things singling Amazon out for this criticism is the fact that the company has avoided implementing the types of policies that other organizations have embraced to improve comfort or work-life balance. The source cited a lack of reimbursement for some travel expenses and the fact that employees supplies are often either Spartan or paid for by the workers themselves.
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) August 17, 2015
Tough and metrics-based decision-making led to turnover in some cases, with former Amazon employee Amy Michaels telling the source this had an effect on the way workers thought about their place within the organization.
“When you have so much turnover, the risk is that people are seen as fungible. You know that tomorrow you’re going to look around and some people are going to have left the company or been managed out,” she said, according to the Times.
A growing culture?
Though the Amazon example may seem like an isolated case of a company pushing an employee motivation scheme too far away from humane recognition and toward pure number-crunching, it may actually serve as an extrapolation of effects being felt in many corners of the business world today. An Associated Press piece noted that the “bruising” tactics on display are the outgrowth of a feeling becoming more common in organizations of all sizes.
Balance may be the key for companies looking to become more modern while not presenting too harsh an experience for staff members. OperationsInc CEO David Lewis told the AP that organizations sometimes fixate on the new data they are bringing in. This is tempting, in the age of constant data streams, however it can underestimate workers whose personalities bring positive change to their offices. When businesses set up new employee reward concepts, they should keep these types of examples in mind.