On Aug. 15, 2015, the New York Times ran a feature that brought a hair-raising story of Amazon’s employee experience to the public. The initial article painted the picture of an environment in which employees were pushed beyond their limits, encouraged to sabotage each other and treated with blatant uncaring through devastating life events and illnesses.
CEO Jeff Bezos sent a letter to shareholders in April 2016, in which he defended the company’s culture:
“The reason cultures are so stable in time is because people self-select," he wrote. "Someone energized by competitive zeal may select and be happy in one culture, while someone who loves to pioneer and invent may choose another." He added, “We never claim that our approach is the right one -- just that it's ours -- and over the last two decades, we've collected a large group of like-minded people; folks who find our approach energizing and meaningful."
In response to the Times article and the barrage of press latching on to the story, many current and former employees went public with praise for the company and their own employee experience. These Amazon cheerleaders were vocal in evangelizing the Amazon way, letting the world know that the intense performance culture encouraged them to become smarter, stronger individuals and professionals. Apparently, not everyone views the Amazon culture as one in which corporate Darwinism rules.
Amazon isn’t right for everybody. The company experiences turnover. However, Amazon also boasts a stream of job-seekers who, one would hope, know what they’re getting into. And for those who value quality delivery, exactness, superior customer focus and best-in-class logistics excellence -- while simultaneously adding respected bullets to a résumé -- Amazon may be the place to thrive. Amazon knows how to attract, retain, develop and reward those who engage in that type of environment.
How can we reconcile a workplace where managers drive their people like Russian Olympic gymnastics coaches with the intense employee loyalty -- even love -- that can be found there? Two words -- expectation alignment.
What is expectation alignment?
Consulting firm DecisionWise recently completed a three-year research study involving more than 24 million employee survey responses. When looking at what created employee engagement, we learned that it was less about whether work conditions were good or bad; rather, it was more important that expectations were aligned and reasonably being met. Amazon seems to understand this principle.
Expectation alignment (EA) is the level to which employees’ expectations for their experience in the workplace line up with their perceived, actual experiences. While Amazon’s optics in the media aren’t the best, the company excels at EA. It lets new hires know exactly what to expect from their employment, and then fulfills those expectations. People who want their workplace to be a love fest filled with Nerf gun fights and interdepartmental yoga may be better off sending their résumés elsewhere. On the other hand, competitive, driven men and women with the ability to excel in the clutch often consider Amazon the best place they’ve ever worked -- the employer that helped them hone a world-class skill set.
Some of the most important factors in creating EA are the explicit promises made to employees during recruiting, hiring, onboarding and ongoing employment. These include clear expectations around compensation, hours, performance and other agreements and are often made in writing or verbally by official representatives of the company (the hiring manager, HR, etc.).
What makes the concept of EA tricky is that expectations, both employee and employer, aren’t always dictated in writing or by verbal promises. Many expectations are implicit, and that can be the cause of severe misalignment. When these gaps in expectation occur, engagement tanks. Leaders and organizations that understand how these expectations are formed are better equipped to avoid expectation gaps.
Beyond the explicit promises -- we refer to both explicit and implicit expectations as “The Contact” -- implicit expectations can be damaging. The DecisionWise study found five causes that tended to be most common:
1. Implied promises from the work environment and company culture.
The everyday environment of an organization implies promises. Perhaps a new phone center rep has heard that employees who work hard and have hit the one-year employment mark are typically promoted to the supervisor ranks. However, when she reaches her one-year anniversary date, a company-wide hiring and promotion freeze is put in place. She feels jaded, even though an explicit promise was never made.
2. Rumors and stories from colleagues and peers.
Rumors and gossip are the enemies of EA because they fill employees’ heads with unsupportable claims. Employee behavior is often a reflection of where they understand the organization to be headed, whether accurate or not.
3. News stories and other information from the broader culture.
Expectations are often created by those outside the organization and transferred to employees. It’s unrealistic to think that employees should be sheltered from news coverage of IPOs, unemployment rates and other business events. As with rumors, this information affects what they expect in the future.
4. Employer brand.
Your organization has two brands: one with its customers and one with current, future and past employees -- your employer brand. It’s the face your organization puts forward to the public that sets expectations about your culture. Your employer brand comes with a host of expectations that will be picked up and carried by your employees, even if some of it is the stuff of urban legend.
5. Unexpressed or unclear employer expectations.
Do your employees know what you expect of them? Are your expectations realistic? Results from the study above tell us that nearly half of line-level employees feel the boss’s expectations are often muddy or at least not clearly spelled out.
Be mindful of both explicit and implicit contracts being set within the organization. Employee engagement is, more often than not, a factor of expectation alignment. When the employee experience is aligned with expectations, a culture of alignment is the result. When alignment occurs, engagement flourishes (even at Amazon), and when an organization is engaged, the business gets results.