Workplace breakdown

I’ve just returned from a brief business trip in UK where yet another global brand is under fire for its treatment of employees. The BBC have reported a story that comes from the US, but UK media have picked it up because of significant planned investment by the same brand there. A clear demonstration, were it needed, that global brand means globally accountable these days.fired

The brand is Amazon, the online retailer- a brand that has been responsible for changing the way people shop on a number of continents.  A brand with technology right at its heart: And perhaps that is the problem.

Amazon, like businesses all over the world, has problems with employee theft. Some industries call it leakage; in others it is part of an increasing spiral of wrongdoing that leads almost inevitably to fraud. And everywhere it happens it signals a breakdown of organisational culture.

Amazon’s brand promise is delivered in the main by huge automated Fulfilment Centres. These are tremendously sophisticated warehouses holding hundreds of thousands of items of value – for as short a period of time as possible – before dispatching them to online customers’ physical addresses.

These centres employ thousands of people whose actions, like those of the machines around them, are micromanaged to a level heretofore thought impracticable. But it seems that the human being’s natural instinct to rebel is winning through. Recently the volume and value of thefts from Amazon centres has grown exponentially. And, according to a report from Bloomberg, the Company has reacted vigorously.

Amazon has now started screening video clips in some of its warehouses showing how employees accused of stealing were caught and fired. The alleged offenders are represented by silhouettes and the words “arrested” and “terminated” are superimposed on them.

Many companies take measures tackle workplace theft, but experts were surprised by the severity of the measure. Bloomberg reported that some workers had taken to hiding merchandise in their socks. An Amazon spokesman had no comment.
Bloomberg said it based its article on interviews with 11 of Amazon’s current and former warehouse workers and security staff. It reported that one ex-employee called the scare tactic “offensive”.“These videos show former colleagues being caught stealing things [or] changing the addresses on packages as they leave the Fulfilment Centre, and even some of them with the word ‘Arrested’ stamped on their silhouette,” reported Bloomberg’s Cory Johnson.

“It’s a problem that Amazon is of course very concerned about, but their tactics to try to get people not to steal are reaching new heights.” The news agency said that the clips are shown on flatscreen TVs. These are also used to display information about firings tied to workplace violence, it said, as well as … more positive announcements. One wonders what those might be and how well they would be received through the same, tainted, channel. Bloomberg added that in warehouses not fitted with screens, information about sackings is sometimes taped to the walls. A nice low-tech touch!

“Lost stock is a massive issue affecting all retailers regardless of whether they are online or store-based,” commented Bryan Roberts from the shopping consultancy TCC Global.”There are lots of measures in place, such as searches to make sure that stuff doesn’t go missing. But this does sound slightly extreme.”

Another expert was more critical, saying Amazon’s practices appeared to be “profoundly emotionally unintelligent”.

“What sort of an organisation has got to the point that it thinks this is a satisfactory or commendable way to be behaving?” asked Matthew Gwyther, editor of Management Today. “I find it extraordinary that its relationships with its workforce have reached such a low point that it would do something like that.”

The point about emotional intelligence is well made. Amazon seems to find automation preferable to human intervention. It is using robots to help move goods around its warehouses and also trialing the use of drones (another tainted channel) to make customer deliveries. But the brand needs to take care, because its remaining staff members and indeed all its customers are – as far as we know – human beings. And human beings relate to other human beings. They also talk to them.

So it is a mistake to consider an employee environment as a sealed system. And an even profounder miscalculation to permit dehumanising treatment of employees (however much they sin) in the name of your brand.




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