How Amazon abused its precious store of staff loyalty
Using workers as a prop to promote company interests is bound to backfire
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos: ‘The curiosity, the passion, the hard work, everything that I see when I get to work with you guys, it’s just amazing to me and it’s awe-inspiring.’ File photograph: Bloomberg
How likely are you to recommend your company as a place to work?
Would you boast about your company to your friends? Now, how do you feel about bigging up your workplace publicly, or remonstrating with critics who attack it?
I sense your diminishing enthusiasm. The first gauge of commitment seems innocuous. You have probably answered a version of the question in an engagement survey. Plenty of companies, particularly those battling to hire, say, scarce software engineers, actively reward staff who convince qualified contacts to apply for jobs.
Queasiness really only sets in with the call to display public loyalty and devotion.
It is no longer so unusual for people to show spontaneous online appreciation for the place they work – or, more often, the people they work with. But when Amazon “fulfilment centre ambassadors” took to social media this month to defend the company against criticism of working conditions, Twitter’s inauthenticity klaxon sounded immediately.
Amazon has been coy about the details, stating the ambassadors – who first became visible a year ago – are real warehouse staff and part of a wider education programme that also includes tours of fulfilment centres.
Twitter users dealt with this creepy public relations campaign in the way they know best, trolling Amazon’s dime-a-dozen diplomats and imitating the accounts so it became impossible to distinguish reality from parody. Terri Gerstein, a former labour lawyer now at Harvard Law School, noted on Slate that the initiative was part of a more general rise in “ventriloquist employers” that use “workers as a prop to serve company interests”.
Whatever you think of Amazon’s methods, the logic of the programme is impeccable. Chief executives have a bigger megaphone than staff. Yet people believe that “regular employees” are more credible when talking about their company than the boss or the board. As a 2013 survey by consultancy Bain highlighted, the snag is that engagement also declines the lower a staff member sits in the hierarchy.
Top-down messages of corporate loyalty are mostly taken as read. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos left little doubt about how he votes on the engagement survey when he took to the stage with singers Katy Perry and Lil Nas X last week at a concert for employees, to celebrate July’s “Prime Day” mid-summer promotions. “The curiosity, the passion, the hard work, everything that I see when I get to work with you guys, it’s just amazing to me and it’s awe-inspiring,” he told the audience, according to Business Insider.
Attempts to harness the positive views of staff, though, are far more delicate and prone to failure.
I suggested earlier this year that worker dissent operates on a rising five-point scale – from deflecting orders, via disregarding, diverting or disrupting them, up to demonstrating actively against company policy. Similarly, happy workers start by engaging with their employer and progress through endorsement, to enthusing (or excusing) it and, finally, if the company is very lucky, extolling it in public.
But just as research suggests that trying to curb dysfunction at work may increase bad behaviour, coercing staff up the scale towards cult-like corporate celebration also risks being counterproductive.
The employee “net promoter score” that lies behind the first question in this article is based on the idea that most companies are peopled by internal “promoters”, apathetic “passives” and active “detractors”. Identifying where they are, and possibly even who they are, is one way to spot cultural strengths and weaknesses. Plenty of consultancies believe they can help do this. Machine learning is being enlisted to predict staff turnover. One serial entrepreneur told me such analysis provides the equivalent of “a very accurate MRI scan, showing areas of inflammation”. It should therefore also be able to track hot spots of enthusiasm.
Board director Kirsty Bashforth, author of a new book , is sceptical. She told me companies should gauge culture improvements using existing proxies, such as the pace of innovation, rather than unreliable and overprecise measures of individual behaviour.
The Amazon ambassadors’ Twitter fail suggests how far it has drifted away from such basics. This will not be the last time the ecommerce company tries to weaponise staff loyalty. Next time you may not be able to spot their lips move. But the only sure-fire way to make staff genuinely enthuse about their employer is to treat them well, furnish them with the tools and the time to do their best work, and congratulate them when they succeed. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019