Did you see the story about Amazon’s human resources problems on the front page of the New York Times on Tuesday? Jeff Bezos was in the right place at the right time in the pandemic, with most of us relying significantly, if not 100%, on online shopping during the crisis and to this day, if my front porch is any indication. But there was a cost to being there – one that his people had to bear.
According to the Times, Amazon was able to grow so fast and furiously because it automated a lot of its HR practices in ways that ultimately backfired. Some team members got fired by mistake when they applied through these systems for leave during the pandemic, and they couldn’t get through to a real person on the phone. Some had problems with other benefits, such as disability. This was all taking place as workers feared that their lives were at risk if they caught COVID-19 – which some did. Ultimately, it was in this environment that workers started to come together to unionize in Alabama. They didn’t think management had their back. Their attempt didn’t succeed but it was a telling sign of where things stand.
The story really struck me as a parable about the importance of people. You can have the most efficient technology – and the largest footprint – in the world, but if you’re not treating your people well, the whole business falls apart. Every business, whether it provides a product or a service, is ultimately in the service business, and if we, as leaders, are not getting the people part right, we can’t serve clients/customers well, either. That is exactly what started happening at Amazon, which could not stay adequately staffed during COVID, amidst the problems the Times reported. Consumers started defecting and buying from Target, Walmart and other competitors.
Amazon has no doubt recovered, but the story brought to light a lot of other issues for its management team to solve. One former executive said the company didn’t want frontline workers to stay more than a few years – assuming people were inherently lazy and would slack off over time. These workers reported that Amazon did not give them as many opportunities to advance as white-collar workers on the management track. With many of the frontline workers people of color and the management team heavily white, the situation seemed to exacerbate racial disparities in the larger world of work.
The story was a powerful reminder, as the economy opens back up at full throttle, of how important it’s going to be to create and maintain work environments where all workers feel appreciated and valued, whether they’re C-suite executives or field personnel. All companies, no matter what the industry, need to prioritize worker benefits, education, training and wellness – and make sure there are clear paths to success for everyone on their teams who wants that path.
We believe strongly in this at Marcum. That’s why we invest in Marcum University to keep our team on the cutting edge, DEI, and alternative work schedules for those who need flexibility. But I’m aware we can always do better and greatly value the input of our team on how we can support them.
It does seem that Amazon’s leadership has taken some of the workers’ complaints to heart. Bezos said in April that the company has committed to becoming “Earth’s best employer” (I thought that was Marcum’s role). That’s going to be important, given that Amazon is on track to become the country’s largest employer in a year or two. We’ll see how the story turns out, but in the meantime, all leaders can take heed from one of its disgruntled team member’s signs at a demonstration: “Treat your workers like your customers.” Without a great team, you’re toast.
Sunday is Father’s Day, but in the Weiner house we start today and celebrate Father’s Day Weekend. This is perhaps my favorite weekend of the year. It’s one of the few times during the year I can count on having all five of my children together in the same place, at the same time, for an extended period. And with the weather on Long Island looking to be as good as it gets all weekend, it will be an added plus. We will partake in all LI has to offer: boating, beach, pool, golf with my three sons, and my favorite — Father’s Day BBQ of steak and tuna, a Jeff Weiner classic. I’m truly blessed to be able to spend the weekend at home with Tracy and our children. It’s the best Father’s Day I could hope for. For you fathers out there, I hope your weekend or day is as good for you as I anticipate mine will be for me.