Amazon’s Approach to Staff Motivation

December 16, 2008

The London Times has a tendency to report news that is more like the made up stories that I thought only big US newspapers offered. A colleague in Europe sent me a link to this London Times’s story here about Amazon, the much loved online retailer run by the world’s smartest man. Amazon has, if the story in the London Times is true, seems to have an personnel touch closer to the idiosyncrasies reported by Richard von Krafft-Ebing (Amazon link is here) than those softies Robert L. Mathis and John H. Jackson (Amazon link is here). The Times’s headline is certainly a grabber, “Revealed: Amazon Staff Punished for Being Ill.” You can read the zippy prose here. As a really fragile goose, I find the thought of my game master putting me in the roaster because my feathers fall out quite troubling. That’s why I am not sure the Times has reported the whole story. But what Claire Newell and Daniel Foggo stated is chilling; to wit:

Warned that the company refuses to allow sick leave, even if the worker has a legitimate doctor’s note. Taking a day off sick, even with a note, results in a penalty point. A worker with six points faces dismissal.

I would be a gone goose for sure. The Times’s editors allowed Amazon to respond. I found this comment interesting:

We want our associates to enjoy working at and the interests of all workers are represented by a democratically elected employee forum who meets regularly with senior management. This forum was consulted before the workforce elected to reduce breaks to 15 and 20 minutes on an eight hour shift in order to cut the total working day by half an hour.

Amazon has a remarkable balance sheet. Its expenditures for R&D and infrastructure seem modest. Compared to companies like Google and Microsoft, Amazon seems to have cracked the code for creating massive Web centric systems on a shoestring. Furthermore, Amazon has been quicker than either Google or Microsoft to release commercial Web services such as the Amazon cloud based computing service and its online storage system. Amazon also has its home grown search system. The guru of search high tailed it to Google. I wonder if the Amazon holiday personnel policies influenced that decision?

If the Times’s story is correct, maybe some of that balance sheet magic comes by applying Herr Krafft-Ebing’s use cases to staff. I bet I could work long hours if I wore the cruel shoes brilliantly described by Herr Krafft-Ebing. If you are not familiar with Herr Krafft-Ebing and his research into human motivation, dive in here. Just make sure no colleagues or children are peeking over your shoulder. Please, keep in mind that I am pointing to a London Times’s news story and I am not sure that story is rolling down the same railroad tracks as I. I do fancy the image of Amazon managers in Herr Krafft-Ebing’s high heels, though.

Stephen Arnold, December 16, 2008


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