Trial-by-Jury at Work? Amazon’s New Performance Improvement Process - American Society of Employers - Kristen Cifolelli

Trial-by-Jury at Work? Amazon’s New Performance Improvement Process

Amazon’s culture has certainly made headlines over the years at a minimum as being demanding and at the extreme described as being downright brutal.   In 2015 the New York Times wrote an article about employee life at Amazon and one former human resource director described a facet of the culture as “purposeful Darwinism.”  This is where employees either quit due to the inability to keep up with the demands of the job or there are routine “cullings” of the staff whereby they are fired. gavel on desk


In 2017, Amazon developed a new program called “Pivot” in order to help employees identified as having performance issues.  The goal of the Pivot program is to provide options to these employees to help their performance get back on track.  The Pivot program has grown out of a desire to better mange their growing workforce of over 500,000 employees.  Amazon has acknowledged that it was often quick to fire instead of looking for alternative ways to resolve issues.  The program involves the following three options:


1.      Quit - Employees can quit and receive severance pay.

2.      PIP - The employee can go the traditional performance improvement plan (PIP) route and spend the next several months proving their ability to meet performance goals set by their manger.

3.      Trial-by-Jury - Face a panel of peers in a courtroom-style video conference in which the employee and their boss present arguments to a peer panel about whether the employee should be in a performance improvement program.


Amazon has never shared the specific details of its program, but individuals who have gone through the trial have shared the following regarding how it works.  Workers are notified by their managers about their performance concerns.  Employees are provided with the list of three Pivot options.  If employees choose the trial option, then both sides (employees and managers) get the opportunity to prepare a pre-trial statement.  Each of the pre-trial statements can be used to prepare for the actual hearing.  Employees can also meet with a “career ambassador” who will explain how the program works, listen to employee concerns, and provide coaching feedback as the employee prepares for the hearing.


When it comes to the panel, employees can choose either one manager or three non-managers as their jury.   That panel is made up of global co-workers who have similar jobs.  One Amazon employee who has gone through the process indicated that she was given a list of potential panelists in advance so she could look up their job titles, biographies, and work background. Employees are allowed to dismiss a panelist if they feel they may be biased or unsympathetic to their case, but ultimately the final choice of panelists is decided by Amazon.


During the actual hearing, employees deliver their argument regarding why they feel they should not have to participate in Pivot.  One amazon employee reported that it was difficult to connect with any panelists or engage on a personal level throughout the hearing.  During the hearing employees are not allowed to hear their manager’s presentation.  Following the hearing the career ambassador will contact the employee to let them know whether their appeal was successful or not.  The Pivot program is modeled similarly like a union grievance procedure even though Amazon employees are not unionized.


Approximately 70% of employees who go through the appeal process lose.  Employees who lose must then choose between quitting or going the traditional PIP route.  If the employee is in the 30% that prevail, they have the option to return to their current team or be placed on another team.  Some of the challenges employees face when going through a hearing is not only the stress in preparing for the hearing and doing it in front of strangers, but also what happens afterward when the employee now has to work with that manager after publicly challenging them.


One of the concerns about the Pivot program is that panelists who may not be familiar with HR processes can make such a huge impact on the future of someone’s career with Amazon.  The panelists may have no previous interactions or exposure to the work of the employee who is appealing and then have to make a decision about whether they can turn their performance around.  There are also concerns about whether panelists would side with the manager in order to gain good favor.  On the other hand, the 30% who do prevail may have had little chance under a more traditional performance improvement program.


Ultimately the Pivot program is certainly one that is unique to Amazon and most likely would not fit well with more traditional cultures.  But for a company of Amazon’s size and with their culture so focused on innovation, it makes for an interesting case study to see if it is able to impact their turnover rate and increase retention.

Sources: New York Times 8/15/2015, Yahoo Finance 6/30/2018, Bloomberg 6/25/2018, Business Insider 7/1/2018



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