It’s difficult to get honest feedback from workers who fear retaliation.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently said warehouse employees like working for his company so much that “94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.” But some of his own employees aren’t buying that statistic.
The 94 percent number was gleaned from an employee survey program at Amazon called Connections, which asks Amazon employees to answer a single question each day before they can start working on their company computer or their warehouse workstation. Bezos cited the stat in mid-April in his final letter to shareholders as Amazon’s CEO.
But in interviews with Recode over the past two weeks, a half-dozen Amazon employees and managers, two of whom are familiar with the inner workings of the Connections program, said that many Amazon employees have widespread concerns about the Connections program and the accuracy of its data and insights.
These employees told Recode that many Amazon employees do not answer Connections questions honestly because they fear their responses are not truly anonymous, and they fear retaliation if they give negative feedback. Others told Recode that some managers, both in warehouses and in corporate offices, pressure their staff to answer questions favorably. A warehouse manager and employee also said workers often just choose the top answer to more quickly get on with their day.
Such skepticism is noteworthy not only because Amazon leans on Connections survey results for public statements and announcements, but also because the program was developed by Amazon’s human resources division and informs how the country’s second-largest private-sector employer evaluates employee job satisfaction.
While Bezos defended the company’s treatment of front-line workers in the shareholder letter, which came out shortly after a historic union vote failed at an Alabama warehouse, he also seemed to acknowledge critics when he wrote that Amazon needs “a better vision for how we create value for employees” and that his new goal is for Amazon to be “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” On Wednesday, LinkedIn named Amazon as the No. 1 workplace “to grow your career.”
Amazon spokesperson Adam Sedo sent Recode a statement about the Connections program that said: “Becoming Earth’s Best Employer and Safest Place to Work requires, among other things, listening to feedback from our employees as often as we listen to feedback from our customers. One way we do that is through Connections, a question our employees answer confidentially every day. Instead of having to wait for the results of an annual employee survey, Amazon managers receive access to daily feedback from their teams and use it to improve the employee experience continuously. This approach helps managers take action quickly and address concerns immediately.”
According to multiple sources, the survey program is a “pet project” of Amazon’s human resources leader Beth Galetti, a former top logistics executive at FedEx who first joined the tech giant in 2013 as a vice president of human resources. She now is one of approximately two dozen executives at Amazon on Jeff Bezos’s exclusive senior leadership team, or S team, and one of only four women.
Connections questions can include everything from asking an employee how they feel about their manager to queries about staff restroom cleanliness. According to a source who worked on the Connections team, the program was one of the first large-scale experiments of a company carrying out a daily employee survey. But this employee said that in the early days of the program, some colleagues felt that the daily cadence of questioning was a fundamental flaw that was less effective at accurately assessing an employee’s experience than a quarterly or monthly survey would.
Sedo, the spokesperson, said the company strongly disagrees with the idea that the daily cadence is a flaw. He added that Amazon asks several questions repeatedly over a period of time so that trends are detectable. Managers can view aggregate data about their staff’s answers on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis.
Either way, one of the biggest issues with the survey program, according to all six employees who spoke to Recode, is that there is a common concern among Amazon’s employee base that their answers will not remain anonymous.
“It is a persistent concern that responses aren’t confidential/anonymous,” says a current Amazon warehouse area manager, a job that typically entails managing dozens of front-line warehouse workers handling a specific task, such as picking items from shelves, stowing them, or packing boxes.
Sedo, the company spokesperson, said that all answers are confidential and that employees can choose not to answer a question.
Two sources said that warehouse workers often choose the top answer, which seems to frequently be the most positive choice, just to get on with their day. Others, on small teams, fear that even if their name is not tied to their survey answers, managers may be able to take an educated guess at who responded negatively based on prior interactions and retaliate against them in some way. Managers of teams of more than four employees can view aggregate survey results from their staff, but those who lead teams smaller than that can’t, the Amazon spokesperson said.
“Depending on the size of team, people used to be able to figure out who said what,” according to a former Amazon employee familiar with the inner workings of the program. “So after a while, some employees decide, ‘I’m not going to be honest.’”
Beyond all of this, several sources, both in corporate and warehouse settings, say they know of managers who coach employees on how to answer questions in an effort to get ahead of survey results that might not reflect well on the manager. Sedo, the Amazon spokesperson, said the company prohibits managers from telling their staff how to answer questions or asking them how they responded.
Despite these concerns, some sources said Connections results can be useful if there is, in fact, trust between a manager and their staff.
“My experience with my team in the FC was that it was pretty accurate, but I also encouraged my team to be open and honest so I could use the scores as intended to address their barriers and concerns,” says the Amazon warehouse area manager. “It does allow me to easily understand what kinds of things are making the team unhappy and/or where my opportunity areas are as a manager.”
The source said the Connections website also provides tips on how to address low employee scores.
But this same manager said there are “definitely managers that will coach their teams how to answer because it’s a performance metric that will be referenced during reviews.”
That fact, plus concerns about anonymity and retaliation, cast enough doubt over the accuracy of survey results that they should be viewed skeptically, according to all of the sources who spoke to Recode, whether for internal use or in Jeff Bezos’s final annual letter to Amazon shareholders.