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Two weeks ago, I wrote a post about Jeff Bezos’ latest shareholder letter and his commitment to, or obsession with, his customers. One of the responses I got to that post was from Micah Solomon, who suggested that it would be equally valuable to review how Amazon treats its employees.

In response to Micah’s note, one of the things I looked at was the situation at Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse, where employees were subjected to unbearable working conditions in the heat of the summer. Conditions were so bad that people were taken away in ambulances to receive medical attention for dehydration, heat exhaustion, and more. The Morning Call, a Lehigh Valley newspaper, has kept tabs on Amazon employees in the area and how they are treated; they have a section of their site devoted to stories about Amazon.

While those events occurred in 2011, as recently as February of this year, there was an issue with the way employees were being treated in Germany. A similar story comes from a British warehouse.

The issues reported in Lehigh Valley, Britain, and Germany occurred with warehouse (fulfillment center) employees. A factor to consider in these scenarios is that vendor partners were involved, whether it was to provide the talent or the security. This begs the question, does Amazon not appropriately vet its partners? Is Amazon responsible for the experience these partners provide? Yes.

  • Amazon has a responsibility to contract with reputable partners who treat their employees well – and who provide services that meet Amazon’s standards.
  • If Amazon doesn’t hold their partners to their own standards, then they are as culpable as the partner.

In an e-commerce world, is employee experience as important to customer experience as it is in a physical, brick-and-mortar retail world? On its own, yes, the employee experience is always important. But thinking of the impact on customer experience, in a world where human interaction is really limited to a rare customer service call (I’ve never called Amazon, though I’ve been a customer for a long time), service that is often circumvented by proactive systems and great policies… what then? Note this:

  • Employee experience is always important! 
  • Employee experience, frontline or behind the scenes, always drives customer experience. 
  • Employee experience unleashes passion and innovation that creates that wonderful customer experience. 
  • For those employees that can’t see it, make the connection to help them understand their impact on the customer experience, of course!

But I digress…

I reviewed Amazon’s shareholder letters from 1997 through 2012. Mr. Bezos doesn’t devote much time to the employee experience in these letters, but he does talk about hiring and hiring the right people. I appreciate that and have no qualms about that, but just like customer acquisition is expensive, so is employee acquisition; hence, heavy focus should be place on retention.

Here’s a smattering of what he’s said about employees over the years in his shareholder letters:

1997: The past year’s success is the product of a talented, smart, hard-working group, and I take great pride in being a part of this team. Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com’s success.

It’s not easy to work here (when I interview people I tell them, “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three”), but we are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy. We are incredibly fortunate to have this group of dedicated employees whose sacrifices and passion build Amazon.com. 

1998: It would be impossible to produce results in an environment as dynamic as the Internet without extraordinary people. Working to create a little bit of history isn’t supposed to be easy, and, well, we’re finding that things are as they’re supposed to be! We now have a team of 2,100 smart, hard-working, passionate folks who put customers first. Setting the bar high in our approach to hiring has been, and will continue to be, the single most important element of Amazon.com’s success.

During our hiring meetings, we ask people to consider three questions before making a decision
(I’ve abbreviated):

  • Will you admire this person?
  • Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re
    entering?
  • Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?

 … We intend to invest in teams, processes, communication and people development practices. …

Can you believe it? In 15 years of letters, that’s it. Technically, he repeats this message when he adds the 1997 letter to each year’s letter, but that’s not the same thing. He does briefly acknowledge and thank the employees for their hard work in a few letters, but it’s nothing more than half a sentence or a word acknowledging the employees in the same breath as processes and systems. Keep in mind, he does a fabulous job of verbalizing his obsession with customers and the customer experience. I don’t want to take away from that. You can just feel it when you read the letters. But…  employees are important, too.

He talks about hiring, which is really important, but what about the things Amazon is doing for its employees after their Day One? What’s the culture? According to Jeff Bezos: “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.” Define intense.

What do employees say about working at Amazon? For that, go to Glassdoor and Indeed for employee reviews. Glassdoor ratings are average, but I think if we cut those reviews by role and/or by country, they will vary greatly. My unscientific review proved to fit that hypothesis. Indeed offers forums for people to ask questions about working conditions, etc., and this particular string about Amazon’s culture shows that Fulfillment Center employees have no kind words about working conditions; even a developer has some harsh words, but closes with:

Some of this might sound harsh but the fact is that most of us love what we do – we’re always creating new and awesome things, get to see our work in the wild and feed off of each others enthusiasm and energy. The technical side of Amazon is not for everyone but if you’re passionate and good at what you do, have had some measure of success and are a alpha-type personality, you’ll do fine. In fact, there is quite a bit of attention put on hiring to make sure you fit all these criteria because, like I said, Amazon is definitely not for everyone.”

Not for everyone.

Hiring the right people is key to delivering the right customer experience, but it’s also important to achieving employee engagement and to having a great employee experience.

What does Amazon say about the employee experience? What do they tell recruits? Despite the fact that Jeff Bezos makes little mention over the years about the employee experience, Amazon does devote a few pages to what it’s like working at Amazon, including their values, which they call Leadership Principles, and a page about Working at Amazon. This is a recruiting video about working at Amazon:

Is a relentless pursuit of customer experience excellence OK at any and all costs? Or is this what it means/takes to be “customer obsessed?” What do you think of their latest employee patent that “facilitates improvement in the results of human performance of tasks” but is apparently also about not paying people for unsatisfactory work?

I’d love to hear from Amazon employees. What’s your take on the employee experience at Amazon?

To promote cooperation and team work, remember, people tend to resist that which is forced upon them. People tend to support that which they helped create. -Vince Pfaff