Tech

Insiders say Amazon puts employees on vague, unrealistic performance improvement programs to make it easier for managers to meet firing quotas

  • Amazon places some employees in a coaching program for underperformers, called “Focus.”
  • Over a dozen insiders say Focus is ambiguous, and gives managers too much power over their careers.
  • Employees say these programs make switching teams difficult, and may lead to their exit from Amazon.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ben Nimmons was a senior user experience designer at Amazon who was surprised when his manager told him that he was being placed into an internal “coaching” program intended to help improve his performance, after less than two years on the job.

He says he never received any details on what being in that program meant, any work assignments or tasks associated with the program, or resources or details on what he might have to do to get out of it. Nimmons used his weekly meetings with his manager to ask questions about the status of the program, but said his questions were rebuffed with responses like “I need to find out more.”

“I worked in ignorance for the better part of 10 months,” Nimmons, who now works at Facebook, told Insider. “It became just a derogatory mark.”

Finally, after spending the better part of the year without any updates or instructions beyond that initial notification, Nimmons was informed he had been removed from the program, with no further information given. He said he later switched teams within Amazon, before ultimately leaving the company on his own in November.

That employee coaching program, internally called “Focus,” isn’t just about career development, employees said. In most cases, being on a coaching program prevents an employee from applying for other positions within the company, and at worst, could be the first step in their exit from Amazon, according to employees and internal memos and emails viewed by Insider.

More than a dozen current and former Amazon employees told Insider the company’s performance coaching programs are unfair, too ambiguous, and give managers too much power over their careers — and makes it that much easier for them to get let go from the company. 

“Amazon doesn’t really coach or develop anybody,” one employee said. “It’s preordained to just let you go.”

Insider previously reported on an internal memo that shows Focus is part of a strategy to meet its goal to get rid of a certain number of employees each year, usually 6% of its corporate workforce. Amazon had nearly 1.3 million full- and part-time employees total at the end of last year, accounting for its corporate, retail, and shipping logistics workforce.

Amazon managers appear to have complete autonomy over both Focus and, the next leg of the coaching program, called Pivot, and can put any worker on the program at any time, employees say. 

“There’s so much effort put into hiring at Amazon. But to put someone on Focus or Pivot, it only takes one person,” one employee said. “It takes a team to hire but one messed-up manager to fire someone,” another employee said. 

A spokesperson for Amazon said that coaching programs like Focus have no relationship to the company’s targets for hiring or firing, and that managers can’t unilaterally decide to place an employee in the program. The spokesperson said that opportunities for advancement are key to Amazon’s appeal as an employer, and described Focus as a tool for managers to deliver feedback and help employees develop their skills.

“Like most employers, we provide managers with tools to help employees improve their performance and grow in their careers at Amazon,” the spokesperson said. “This includes resources for employees who are not meeting expectations and may require additional coaching. If an employee believes they are not receiving a fair assessment of their performance, they have multiple channels where they can raise this, including our employee resource center, their direct HR business partner, and our anonymous hotline.”

Focus is the first step in Amazon’s performance review process

If performance doesn’t improve while in Focus, employees can end up in Pivot, where they can choose between exiting the company with a severance package or starting a more formalized performance-improvement plan, the employees said. If an employee leaves Amazon through Pivot, voluntarily or otherwise, they receive a ban from any future employment at the company, employees said. 

As Insider previously reported, employees view Amazon’s performance review process as opaque in general. That’s true of the coaching plans, specifically, too, they said. “The details are in this secret cabal of managers,” one employee said.

Insiders previously said Amazon employee reviews resembled stack ranking, a controversial performance-review system in which employees are evaluated on a curve and a certain percentage must rank at the bottom, a practice the company denies using. Managers told Insider they had felt pressured to rank employees in the bottom tier even if they felt their performance merited a higher tier. “Whomever is the least best has to go,” one manager previously told Insider. “It’s like firing someone who got an A- when the rest of the class got A’s.”

The employees say that exactly what the Focus program entails seems to be up to managers to decide and varies greatly in case to case. Some employees, like Nimmons, only receive a notification that they are on a coaching program, with no further communication for the duration that they’re on it.

But employees said there’s often no formal notification when employees are put on Focus, and some employees said they had to specifically ask to find out. A current employee said they only learned they had been on Focus when a manager congratulated them for being taken off the program. Another said they were told by an Amazon HR representative that “the manager is not officially required to tell employees they are on a Focus plan.”

Amazon’s spokesperson said managers are required to share with an employee that they are not meeting expectations and outline specific growth areas. The spokesperson described Focus as a way to provide coaching and support for managers to work with employees who are not meeting expectations, and that it’s designed to keep managers accountable to provide actionable feedback and track employee progress.

Some do receive more formal goals on Focus, usually to be completed within a fixed period of time. Employees said they were told they would be on the plan for as little as one month to as long as a year, but managers have the option to extend that period. Sometimes it appears indefinite. “The manager never gave me a concrete answer,” one employee said. “He said it just depends on whether you meet your goals or not.” 

The goals are often unclear and unrealistic, employees said, with vague ties to Amazon’s famous leadership principles. For example, one coaching plan document seen by Insider cited two leadership principles — “Earns Trust” and “Disagree and Commit” — as areas to work on during the coaching plan. The document says that the employee failed to earn the trust of the team by not seeking more feedback.

One employee said their goals under Focus included tasks they had already completed, and had to do them over again. Another employee described their goals as impossible to complete, which in their view meant the manager wanted them out.

Some employees said that their goals were vague, including the criticism that “your writing is not ‘crisp’ enough.” And managers provide nebulous feedback through the process, employees said, such as: “We’ll continue to work on your writing.” 

Focus is a part of Amazon’s philosophy of ‘unregretted attrition’

Amazon has a goal called unregretted attrition (URA), which represents the percentage of employees it wouldn’t regret seeing leave, one way or the other.

The most senior executives at Amazon, including incoming CEO Andy Jassy, closely track URA, according to internal documents obtained by Insider. Jassy, for example, is expected to replace 6% of his division through “unregretted” departures on what appears to be an annual basis.

Three employees said some managers practice what’s internally called “hire to fire,” in which they hire people they intend to fire within a year just to help meet their URA targets. Amazon’s spokesperson said the company does not hire employees with the intention of firing them, and does not use the phrase “hire to fire.”

Focus appears to be a strategy for Amazon managers to get rid of enough employees to meet the URA goal. Insider previously reported on an internal memo that directs Amazon Web Services managers to place twice as many employees as it wants to get rid of into Focus. Amazon’s spokesperson said the company has no central goals about how many employees should be entered into Focus.

“There are no checks and balances,” one Amazon manager said. “If I want to get rid of my staff, I can put them into Focus plan. There is no appeal system for Focus. It’s a one-way street.” 

One employee said they were discouraged by managers to go to human resources to fight being placed on Focus. “HR is not really in it for you, the employee,” the person said they were told. Another employee, who chose to go to HR said, “It’s amazing how much HR was there to defend the process and the company, rather than look after the employees.”

Some employees described difficulties in switching teams internally within Amazon while on Focus, with at least one saying that they ran into friction in making that change even after they were off the program. 

Emails seen by Insider show managers from other teams declining to accept transfers of people who had been on Focus. And several people said that teams typically wait for a full year after finishing the coaching plan to make sure an employee has been able to consistently demonstrate their performance without causing friction with the manager. 

“Amazon is quite strict about performance on internal transfers, so even if you’ve come out of Focus, that’s still a concern,” one person said.

Do you work at Amazon? Contact reporter Eugene Kim via encrypted messaging apps Signal/Telegram (+1-650-942-3061) or email ([email protected]).

Are you an Amazon Web Services employee? Contact reporter Ashley Stewart via encrypted messaging app Signal (+1-425-344-8242) or email ([email protected]).

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