In late 2014 and early 2015, Amazon SDF8 began rolling out some new internal communication programs designed to disseminate information to Tier One associates. Some of these programs are network-wide, but SDF8 is apparently a significant pilot facility for the testing of new programs, policies, and procedures. The company uses these channels associatively, in a kind of cross-channel marketing campaign directed at employees. I am listing eight of these communication channels below:
1) Stand-up meetings
Each department has stand-up meetings at the beginning of shift and after lunch. An Area Manager or Production Assistant usually gives a short address to the employees regarding expected rates (goals) for the day, and safety tips. Often, new policy changes are announced briefly in stand-up meetings with the understanding that more information will come later through other channels. For instance, Connections questions were first announced, to me, in AFE stand-up sometime during peak season 2014. Then, Connections questions would be promoted in inSTALLments, A to Z magazine, bulletins, All Hands meetings, etc.
2) Connections questions
When one of my managers announced that we would be receiving daily questions on our computer screens or scanner screens at the start of shift, I didn’t think much of it–just another attempt by the company to push its brand of internal communications. I noticed immediately that the questions were simplistic (impossible to give a nuanced answer), loaded, personally and psychologically invasive, extremely patronizing. I recall some of the early questions focusing on mood, maybe even, Are you depressed at work? These early, invasive questions have been toned down a bit since then. One we get frequently now is, “I feel motivated at work.” To which the employee must choose a response from: “Strongly agree, Agree, Neither agree nor disagree, Disagree, Strongly disagree.”
The manager said that participation would be optional, that it was just a way for the company to help improve the workplace. I went to him and asked, “When you announced the start of the start-of-shift questions, you said they would be optional. How do I opt out?” He said he didn’t know, that he didn’t think the questions were any big deal, I might ask HR, maybe they could help me. I never asked HR. I adopted the policy of simply pressing “enter” twice when any question pops up (sometimes they pop up on my scanner when I log in at start of shift, sometimes at other times during the day). This sequence, “enter/enter”, does not register a non-answer. It simply highlights and registers the first answer as default, which is usually “Strongly agree” or some other wording of highest degree of affirmative. So, when the question is, “Does your manager deal with problems in your department effectively?” my default answer is always “Strongly agree.” And if the question is, “Would you recommend Amazon to a friend or relative as a great place to work?” my answer is always “Strongly agree.” And if the question is, “Do you plan on leaving Amazon in the next thirty days?” my answer is “Yes”. And if the follow-up question is, “If you leave Amazon, will you still be an Amazon customer?” my answer is, the first or default answer in this case being the negative, “No.” So the company never had a straight opinion from me for Connections questions because my personal thoughts and opinions at work are my own, unless I decide to offer them. Every once in a while the question has been, “Do you know you can scroll down to give other answers?” And, of course, my answer would be the first and default answer, “Yes.”
I do not know what the law is regarding unsanctioned, mandatory psychological testing of employees. (One cannot begin working until one gives a response because the screen will not advance.) I do not know if there even is a law that would cover this kind of testing, but I suspect the company is pushing the boundaries of such law with little scrutiny from anyone.
These questions are disconcerting. What is the company up to? What is it doing with the information it is gathering from and about its employees? My fellow workers have varied opinions about the meaning of the questions. One said, “Oh, I like to answer them the best I can, try to help them out.” (He was fired shortly after making the above statement for failing a random drug test.) Another employee said, “I think they use them to weed out people who are dissatisfied, troublemakers, kind of. You know, I think that’s why they move people around so much here–so they won’t get together and talk about unions. If you’re never in the same place with the same people, if people are always moving around, then it’s really hard to keep relationships, you know?” (I don’t believe the woman who made the above statement is still with the company either.)
More recently, an employee wrote this:
From the VOA board (Voice of Associate) 12/28/15: “Whatever happened to Connections being voluntary? Can’t you have people use kiosks instead of forcing me to answer 1 sided questions where there aren’t any other choices?”
The company response from a Senior Operations Manager on 12/30/15: “The goal of Connections is to collect enough information to make it value added. Please understand that this is one avenue we use to become a better Amazon every day. Thank you.”
Another employee wrote:
From the VOA board 7/15/16: “I would like to see applicable answers (connections questions) to allow for disagreement or N/A. The results are inaccurate if there are only agreeable options.”
The company response from an HR manager on 7/16/16: “Thank you for your suggestion.”
I began to compile a raw list of Connections questions in the fall of 2015. This list contains all the questions I have to this date. (I have not selected them.)
The company promotes Connections questions in many forums. I’ll give just two examples:
From the week of August 10th, 2015 inSTALLments, under the tag line, “Your Voice, Your Amazon”: “Did you know your Connections feedback is confidential? . . . Feel confident in answering the Connections questions and speaking freely with Connections Advisors. All responses and conversations are kept confidential. . . . Connections needs to see your responses for two reasons. By seeing where you work, the Connections Team can identify successes or opportunities specific to a site. Connections also needs to identify you if they want to invite you to speak to a Connections Advisor.”
From inSTALLments the week of November 30, 2015, again under, “Your Voice, Your Amazon”: “Will Connections questions be asked during Peak? . . . You will continue to participate in Connections and receive the questions of the day. . . . We also recognize that peak is a busy fun time of the year. You’re working hard and we appreciate your contribution! You will receive messages that recognize your efforts.”
The company also selects, interprets, and appropriates Connections questions and employees’ answers, then redistributes them to employees. A few examples:
Again from the week of August 10th, 2015 inSTALLments, under the tag line, “Your Voice. Connections”: “SDF8 Question: ‘If I could switch managers today, I would.’ Favorable 70%, Unfavorable 30%.”
In the above example, “Favorable” and “Unfavorable” were not available responses to the original Connections question posed to employees. The possible responses were: “Strongly agree, Agree, Too new to assess, Disagree, Strongly Disagree.” The interpreted responses are unclear as to the meaning of “Favorable” and “Unfavorable.” Does “Unfavorable” mean that the employee wishes to switch managers or that the employee views switching managers negatively?
From the week of August 17th, 2015 inSTALLments, under the tag line, “You spoke, We listened”: “SDF8 Question: ‘Do your co-workers make you laugh?’ Yes 83%, No 17%.”
The possible answers to the above question are less ambiguous, yes or no. However, the question only indicates that the employee answering “yes” enjoys his co-workers. It says nothing about how the employee feels about the working environment of SDF8. SDF8 workers I have spoken to almost unanimously say the thing they like the most about their jobs is the people they work with, but they just as unanimously take issue with Amazon’s labor practices. They also believe, overwhelmingly, that there is nothing they can do about these practices other than find another job. Long-term employees, those who have been with SDF8 from its opening in 2012, lament the current labor relations and think about finding a new job often. Many, of course, have already left.
These two examples alone are relatively insignificant, but within Amazon’s labor communications system, re-appropriation, re-interpretation, and general spinning of information, including information gathered from employees, is the norm, not the rarity.
It is at the company’s discretion how it creates, collects, interprets, and distributes this information gathered from employees. The answer choices never include “None of the above” or “That’s personal.” In a labor system where every idle second counts against the employee’s rate, she cannot begin working until she provides a response. There is a wide disconnect between Connections questions (often statements) about valuing employees and actual policies that devalue employees. This is in no way “Your voice, Your Amazon.” Many associates already understand this disconnect, and that their answers to loaded questions are being appropriated by the company for manipulative purposes. I chose to withdraw from this fake dialogue with the company and begin my own dialogue.
inSTALLments is a weekly flyer the company started posting sometime in early 2015. The flyer is a one sided 11 x 17 multi-colored document hung horizontally, targeting a captive audience. The employee reads it while occupied in the bathroom. In the men’s bathroom, inSTALLments is posted above the urinals and in the bathroom stalls.
inSTALLments usually contains four columns of block print with different headings or taglines followed by some company information. For instance, the March 21, 2016 edition (week 12) contains the following headings:
“DID YOU KNOW? . . . During our 2015 Peak Amazon provided over 178,700 cups of free coffee to SDF8 associates . . . ”
“DID YOU KNOW? . . . Amazon fulfillment centers MKE1 and MKE5 in Kenosha, Wisconsin welcomed the United States Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for a tour followed by a town hall with associates. During the visit, associates taught the Speaker how to pack a customer order, including labeling, shipping, and inventory.”
“REFERRAL BONUS . . . Amazonians get $125 Bonus for each person they refer to work here at SDF8 . . . ”
“YOUR VOICE. YOUR AMAZON . . . SDF8 Associates were recently asked these connections questions: . . . ”
“SAFETY TIP NOSE OVER TOES . . . ”
“UPT AND PTO . . . It is the associates responsibility to be an owner of his/her UPT . . . ”
“WELCOME TO AMAZON! . . . Direct Hires 63, Conversions 14, Integrity 21”
inSTALLments nearly always contains the “Welcome to Amazon” heading listing hires for the week. The listing is one way of tracking SDF8 turnover. A “conversion” converts an Integrity temp to full-time Amazon employee. In the above week, the actual new Amazon employees would be 63+14=77. When one considers how many extra employees SDF8 had on deck during peak 2015, and the rate at which it was still hiring in the first half of 2016, it creates a powerful anecdote regarding the rate at which SDF8 hires and loses employees.
(Addendum: The “Welcome to Amazon” heading was omitted from the September 5, 12, and 19 [week 36, 37, and 38] 2016 inSTALLments. Amazon SDF8 appears to have discontinued this weekly hiring update.)
“CUSTOMER CORNER . . . That moment you order something from @amazon and it’s delivered within 24hrs. #amazonforthewin” (“Customer Corner” is always a customer tweet.)
Lastly, there is always a joke at the bottom left corner spoken by a little cartoon character named Peccy with a hat and scarf: “Astronomers got tired of watching the moon go around the earth for 24 hours, so they decided to call it a day.”
4) All Hands meetings
I first thought All hands meetings were held every month or so. I believe they are held something like quarterly now, with special meetings held when deemed appropriate by management. It takes a lot of employee hours to get every associate into a meeting for an hour or so. The meetings are held in the large main break room. Employees attend according to when their shift is scheduled. The meetings are mandatory, and workers are scanned in for attendance as they pass through entrance lines.
The company uses All hands meetings to convey information to employees regarding new programs, policies, procedures, organizational changes, pay and benefits, company successes, etc., along with feel-good music, videos, jokes and other fluff.
The meetings are heavily scripted with PowerPoints. Senior Operations Managers, HR managers, and usually the General Manager will take turns with presentations. The meetings are a lot like political conventions, not a lot of alternative viewpoints. Questions are taken at the end of the meeting, but dissenting questions are quickly dismissed or ignored by managers.
I will go into some detail regarding three particular All Hands meetings further below, the April 1st, 2015, the February 3rd, 2016, and the June 15th, 2016. These three meetings are significant for a few reasons.
The April 2015 meeting was the first time I spoke with Matt, the SDF8 General Manager for most of my tenure, now the General Manager CMH1, Columbus, Ohio . It is also the first and last time I heard any member of management mention the word “union”–this was in a short PowerPoint presented by Matt.
The Feb 2016 meeting offered a lot of information about the successes of peak 2015, and a lot of information about the current state of SDF8. This information is useful to bring us up to the present concerning SDF8 programs and policies. A significant organizational change was announced during this meeting: Matt will be transitioning out to a new Amazon robotics facility in Ohio. Sunender, the former SDF8 Senior Operations Manager, will be transitioning into the SDF8 General Manager position.
The June 2016 meeting highlighted ongoing SDF8 successes, operational changes, and introduced a significant new labor performance evaluation program I will talk about.
5) Bulletin boards, VOA, VOB
The VOA board (Voice of Associate) is a large, ruled dry-erase board hung near the east breakroom, and another hung near the west breakroom. Associates can write comments and questions on the left side of these boards which will solicit a written response from a member of management or HR on the right side. There are rules regarding what can be posted, but for the most part, management is fairly liberal as to what will be allowed to remain. The questions and response remain for a few days before being erased to allow room for new. The old questions and comments are recorded in a book.
The VOB (Voice of Business) board is a similar dry-erase board hung next to the VOA board. Managers and HR can write posts on this board concerning issues relevant to associates, for instance, if a road wreck caused a significant number of employees to be late, the tardiness might be excused for all employees for that morning.
6) A to Z magazine
A to Z magazine is a 9 x 13 tall, glossy, in-house, sixteen page magazine published quarterly. The company began producing this in-house magazine in early 2015, and promoting it through other communications channels. It is jam-packed with fluff concerning Amazon successes and global initiatives like: “Amazon Launches Fleet of Branded Trailers,” “Amazon Robotics Launch in Europe,” “Amazon Studios Wins at the Golden Globes,” “Holiday Season 2015 Made History,” “Prime Air,” “Amazon Books.”
There are pictures of smiling employees with quotes about their favorite Amazon Leadership Principle, a picture of Jeff Bezos smiling on one knee next to a Make-a-Wish Foundation participant, stories about the Connections team, and reprinted Connections questions with employee responses.
7) Calls to home/voicemails
During 2015 peak, the company began making several calls to all Tier One associates to convey several types of non-emergency information. I found these calls to be annoying, if not disturbing. Generally, all hands phone calls have been reserved for major weather incidents or other emergency information such as a water-main break that temporarily closed the facility.
The first of these calls came on November 26, Thanksgiving Day, 2015. I was at home, in the kitchen cooking Thanksgiving dinner with my family when I got a phone call with the following recorded message:
“Hi, this is Matt ___, General Manager of SDF8. Just a quick message to say happy Thanksgiving. I’m so thankful for your hard work and dedication to our customers. Looking forward to our record breaking peak this year, and don’t forget our peak incentives are in full effect. We’ll have prizes for working your shift like gift cards and Kindle, and on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, lunch is on us. Have a great rest of your day.” Then a group of managers or HR reps in the background yelled, “Happy Thanksgiving!”
I was astonished. I don’t know who at Amazon thought it would be a good idea to call me at my home when I was spending Thanksgiving with my family to wish me Happy Thanksgiving with a recorded message. We are not that tight. We are not family. It rings insincere.
What is it about Amazon’s labor environment and its relationship with labor that allows it to be comfortable calling employees on Thanksgiving? Amazon employees do not exist for the company outside of their production role, so that even a sacred period of private family time such as Thanksgiving is not off limits for the company. This employee non-existence allows the company to adopt policies by which the employee is a production instrument with delineated cost, delineated production value, and delineated service life.
On November 29, 2015, I received this message:
“Hello, this is ____, Operations Manager at Amazon SDF8, calling to remind you that on November 30th, Cyber Monday shift, all Inbound, ICQA, and learning shifts will start promptly at 6 pm, and all Outbound shifts will start at 6:30 pm. Please be aware that we are currently on eleven hour scheduled shifts. Thank you, and have a great evening. Take care.”
And on December 11, on my first day off after a gruelingly physical 59.5 hour week (again, I was with my family), I got this call:
“Hi, this is Matt, the director of operations at SDF8. First, I want to give a big thanks to each and every associate for the absolutely fabulous peak you’re delivering for our customers. SDF8 has broken just about every record in both Inbound and Outbound, and we’re about to do it again. Next week is the biggest week of the year, and we need everyone focused on crushing it. On Monday, we’ll start our crush it week, with Orange Crush at change of shift. We also have several other fun activities throughout the crush it week. Another special announcement, we have a UPT [unpaid time off] earn-back incentive for the next two weeks. Every Amazonian who works their entire shift will get five hours of UPT deposited in their account over the next two weeks, so you can earn a total of ten hours UPT for perfect attendance. Please note that you can have only a maximum of eighty hours in your account at any given time. Lastly, I want to remind all Amazon associates that November VCP [variable compensation pay] will be paid out early, on the 12/18 paycheck, and SDF8 has had the best VCP payout of the year, with a six percent productivity payout, and an average of over ten percent. Thanks again for dedication and hard work. Our customers truly appreciate it, and I’m proud of the peak you are delivering.”
All the above information was available through multiple, redundant, on-site channels.
Sunender pointed out during the February 2016 All Hands meeting that the shift reminders help employees understand when to come in so we can operate. If this is true, I want to point out that if we were a stable workforce, we would not be so novice as to not even know when to show up for our shift. We have stand-up meetings twice a day. Shift reminders are posted everywhere, and there are large, standardized shift notification boards at entrances.
There are random signs posted all around the facility, like: “As Big as 28 football fields,” “Cyber Monday 36.8 million items ordered,” “Over 90,000 jobs created in the US.”