Amazon Is Brilliant. Why Not at H.R.?

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We’ve heard a lot of debate about whether work at an Amazon warehouse should be considered a good job or a bad one. My colleagues Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford spent months trying to answer a different question: How well does Amazon manage all those people?

What they found was that Amazon’s systems for mass-managing its hourly work force are strained and uneven, resulting in high turnover of employees. I encourage you to read their deeply reported investigation, which left me wondering whether Amazon’s handling of arguably its most important asset — its roughly one million employees in the United States, mostly hourly workers — is effective or sustainable for the company, let alone those people.

I spoke with Karen about what she and her colleagues learned, and where Amazon’s reputation for supreme efficiency is at odds with the chaos of managing its staff.

Shira: You found that Amazon had to replace more than the equivalent of its entire hourly work force in a single year. That is stunning. Is Amazon pushing them out or are they quitting?

Karen: Both. Amazon hires so many people, often with no in-person interview and little vetting, and it loses a significant number of workers within the first couple of weeks after they’re hired. We’ve heard of people walking out on their lunch break on their first day of orientation. That creates a tremendous amount of turnover and some chaos in the workplace.

We also wrote about an employee named Dayana Santos, who had been praised by managers and then was fired for one bad day when for various reasons she wasn’t consistently producing. She’s someone the company should have wanted to keep. Amazon has since changed the policy that led to her firing, but the example shows that the company has built systems that cannot always effectively assess who is a capable worker.

Is the high rate of employee turnover intentional?

David Niekerk, a former Amazon vice president who built the warehouse human resources operations, said that Jeff Bezos didn’t want lengthy tenure for hourly employees. Company data showed that employees became less engaged over time, and Amazon wanted people who would push to go above and beyond.

Maybe Amazon doesn’t want to have so many people leave every year, but changing that is not the No. 1 priority, either. Amazon churns through so many employees that I’ve heard numerous Amazon leaders in Seattle describe a nagging fear that the company will run out of Americans to hire.

What does Amazon say about this?

Amazon told us that the rate of attrition of workers is just one metric that isn’t relevant without context. The company didn’t elaborate. Company officials didn’t say that it is unacceptable to have 150 percent turnover in a year.

Let’s be real about the dollars and cents. Isn’t it costing Amazon a lot of money to replace so many people?

It is. And a crucial — maybe the most important — factor in Amazon’s future growth is not the success of futuristic inventions like delivery drones or home robots. It’s how effectively Amazon manages the people who pick, pack and ship all those boxes to our doors.

Tech companies talk about “moonshots,” or doing the seemingly impossible. With Alexa, the company started with a vague idea but put its best people on the project, set incredibly ambitious targets and figured it out. Some Amazon executives at the corporate level and those who oversee the warehouses are asking why managing more than one million humans hasn’t been that type of high priority moonshot.

Bezos wrote in April that he wanted Amazon to become “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work.” What does he mean? And what actions is Amazon taking?

Amazon has talked about the safety part but not as much about the other half of Bezos’ statement. Being a great employer is about more than pay, although Amazon has increased hourly wages recently and is paying new-hire bonuses.

After we inquired about the company’s policies, Amazon also changed its use of a productivity metric that some workers said had been arbitrarily applied. Someone can no longer be fired for one bad day. (Amazon said it had been reconsidering the policy for months.)

Are there successful companies that manage hourly workers differently than Amazon?

Costco’s chief executive testified to Congress that its hourly workers tend to have long tenures. That’s a source of pride for Costco.

Walmart is often criticized for its labor practices and it generally pays less than Amazon, but it says that more than 75 percent of managers at its U.S. stores started as hourly employees. It’s extremely challenging to make that jump at Amazon.

Sam’s Club, which is part of Walmart, trains workers to do multiple jobs in a store. That’s partly to keep people feeling fresh in their jobs and learning new skills. Amazon warehouse employees might do the same type of work for 10-hour shifts every day.

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Esme the cat is an adorable thief. A woman in Oregon put up a clothesline in her yard for her neighbors to retrieve gloves, masks, bathing suits and other items that Esme had cat-burglared from them.