Amazon's Lesson in Underestimating Employees

Words by Nora Bradshaw
Date 2021-06-30

Amazon has been busy. Between transitioning to a new CEO and engaging in a corporate space race, the business giant also found time to reflect on its corporate values and what it stands for in the world.

After unveiling a series of new principles, Amazon wants to "strive to be earth's best employer" by creating value for workers, not just customers. This comes against a backdrop of high-profile unionization attempts and calls from employees to improve working conditions, particularly from the warehouse side of the business.

The shift in strategy is an important one and speaks to a wider business trend: Employees are an extremely powerful marketing channel, and businesses of all sizes need to recognize their value.

The customer experience begins with employees

The ways in which we perceive companies and our expectations of them are changing. Gone are the days of visiting a company's About Us page to find out its values and what it stands for. Now, you just need to visit an employee portal or review site to get a window into the real inner workings of a business.

Channels like Glassdoor and a growing movement of apps that allow employees to share experiences - such as anonymous professional network Blind - are exposing the reality of workplace culture. What you say to your employees is just as critical as what you say across social media, websites and in your advertising campaigns.

But it's not just your employees who care about how they're treated; customers are becoming increasingly invested in it too. After all, your employees are the backbone of the customer experiences, from customer service to product development.

If they don't understand your company vision and how it translates into satisfied customers, they won't be able to manifest your brand promise. Remember, your employees are the face of your company and your most obvious marketing channel - they have to understand how your brand shows up.

These expectations aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, the problem is only going to get more challenging in the wake of the huge movement of people between companies known as the Great Resignation. There are three factors that are not only going to be key to customer interaction but also huge drivers of talent acquisition: a better work experience; the culture that a business creates; and how this translates into the actual lived employee experience.

Alexa, unmute the staff

Amazon has seen firsthand the dangers of underestimating the marketing power of employees.

A recent marketing campaign showcasing Amazon staff discussing the benefits of working for the company was met with swift backlash. Workers and unions accused Amazon of wasting millions on inviting customers to visit warehouses while they were loudly voicing concerns about working conditions.

This resulted in them puling the campaign.

Reaching for realistic stars

So how should you approach employees? First, your priorities have to be attainable and realistic - not just aspirational.

Second, corporate values aren't something you can simply dictate to people from the top down - they have to be built collaboratively and based on the realities of the business. Organizations must have a plan for bringing their values to life and include employees in that process. That is what makes culture tangible and a great employee experience real.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, companies have to listen to employees and act. All too often, executives focus on creating policies around what employees can and cannot say publicly. Often this comes from a place of fear, but what do you have to hide?

If your culture is good and your values are embedded in your business, then you shouldn't have to mute your staff. And allowing people to speak freely provides an opportunity to listen to them in an authentic way and act upon it.

First published in AdWeek.