Learning Curve: Maintaining your reputation

by Tracy Clayson
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.
Tracy Clayson is managing partner, business development of Mississauga, Ontario-based In Transit Personnel.

In August, an ex-Amazon employee triggered a flurry of responses, reactions and news stories when she accused the company of having abysmal working conditions.

This is an important story for our industry to hear, as consumer behavior continues to take on increased significance and brand loyalty can be rocked by any number of unexpected marketing missteps.

This isn’t the first exposé of Amazon’s business practices. Back in 2011, warehouse workers in Pennsylvania complained of 100 degree (F) temperatures in distribution centres run without air conditioning. Some workers said in a given shift, they had to walk more than 15 miles around these overheated warehouses. Many complained of heat stroke.

Amazon, without a retail presence, has over the last decade been encroaching on the business of the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. In July, Amazon overtook Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the United States, by offering online ordering, attractive pricing, convenient delivery and bundled add-on item promotions with each purchase.

Of course, as any leader in retail distribution can attest, ensuring merchandise is optimally sourced, shelves are stocked and customers are always happy, is no small feat. Companies also require strong performers who have passion, creativity and commitment to get the job done.

But company culture is not only about employee recognition, a healthy workplace, daycares and dog parks. It’s about giving employees the chance to use all their talents to achieve results. To equate career success to how professional ball teams operate, winning teams are generally led by a coach who demands outstanding performance from the players and, while the work is hard and the boss may sometimes be overly stern or demanding, the team wins because it is led and inspired to victory.

In Jim Collins’ 2001 book Good to Great, he argued that successful companies are built by strong teams and an enduring corporate culture. These teams engage the total working group, in contrast with an earlier era dominated by charismatic leaders such as General Electric’s Jack Welch and Chrysler’s Lee Iacocca.

While the theory of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” may apply, there still needs to be a founder or senior person at the helm creating an idea, a product and a solution while delegating other tasks to teams.

Today, a company’s reputation (from an employee’s perspective) isn’t established by leadership on GlassDoor and other ‘rate your employer’-type sites. Almost all of this fodder comes from disgruntled employees venting about their unhappy work lives and those trying to provide useful information to prospective applicants. They will be much more successful if they judge a prospective employer by reputation and their own investigations.

All companies should have a code of ethics, policies around fair and equal treatment and employee engagement programs. Growing companies with rapidly changing business offerings and cutting-edge product development should be good at juggling the HR functions of clearly stated expectations, regular reviews, 360 evaluations and professional development and mentoring programs.

For his part, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded quickly to the more recent New York Times story, encouraging any employee unhappy with his/her working conditions to send an email to Amazon HR or to him personally. Time will tell if this is enough to turn the PR war in his favour.

After all, even today, speaking up to one’s boss about job dissatisfaction can sometimes mean the end of that job. In an employees’ market, companies must be positioned to have their best employees endorse their workplace and for leadership to defend against unhappy employees who may want to express their frustrations publicly.

A company’s reputation can take a severe hit from negativity—whether legitimate or not—and discontented workers have more than a few options. Social media, GlassDoor and many other outlets provide a safe haven to anonymously vent.

Legal cases are constantly in play between businesses and employees who, allegedly, aren’t receiving fair treatment. So if your company runs well and employees are being treated fairly it still pays to make sure that satisfaction is running high. Otherwise, once a complaint hits the public’s ears you will be opening the door and entering the court of public opinion—and in that court it’s not always a fair fight.