Amazon Focuses on Efforts to Reduce Rank-and-Yank Worker Reviews

For years, Amazon.com Inc.’s white collar workers accused the company of using opaque “rank-and-yank” performance reviews to periodically eliminate its workforce. Now, a proposed law in Amazon’s home state of Washington could make it harder for companies to fire workers without explaining why.

Washington employees are currently entitled to their personal records, but current law is not clear on what must be disclosed and there is no consequence in ignoring requests. The bill aims to better define employee files and to sanction companies that do not transmit them.

The potential impact of the proposed legislation extends beyond layoffs. Workers also need to access their employment records to apply for unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation or pursue discrimination complaints.

“It’s ultimately a matter of fairness,” said Patty Kuderer, Democratic state senator and labor lawyer who introduced the bill last year. “The contents of a personal file must be precise and employees must be able to verify it.”

The bill is currently stalled, so Kuderer and other supporters are hopeful that the testimony of tech workers in the next legislative session will help them pass the proposal. Among employees considering testifying, former Amazon drone engineer Pat McGah said he was surprised to learn in February that he was among the “least efficient” in his group after working at Amazon for 18 months.

McGah, 37, asked why he received the note, but said his managers refused to provide a reason. McGah said he had two choices: go through a 30-day performance plan that often leads to termination, or take severance pay. He opted for severance pay, he said, because his manager’s advice on how to improve was cryptic and included instructions such as creating “structure in ambiguous situations”.

“What does it mean?” said McGah, who evaluated the aerodynamics of delivery drones for Amazon. “It looks like a fortune cookie. “

Rank and tweak performance ratings have long been controversial. Popularized in the 1980s by Jack Welch at General Electric Co., the practice involves ranking employees against each other and eliminating those who are seen as underperforming. Companies have used various names to make the process less harsh – Welch preferred “differentiation”.

Proponents say the ranking helps create a standard for evaluating workers and rewarding the best. Critics say it puts pressure on managers to target otherwise good employees for dismissal. Amazon denies the “stacking” of employees, but internal documents cited by the Seattle Times describe a practice called “unrepentant attrition” that aims to eliminate the bottom 6% of the workforce each year. Yahoo and Facebook have also come under fire for their own stacked ranking versions.

“At Amazon, we work hard to ensure that all employees receive the support they need to be successful in their roles and to grow and develop their careers,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We are trying to understand who our best artists are and find ways to recognize these people. We also understand that there are people who do not meet performance expectations. Like most companies, we offer coaching and other supports to employees who do not meet the bar to help them improve their performance.

Representative David Hackney, a Democrat from Seattle, also supports strengthening Washington’s law. As an internal investigator at Amazon for two years, Hackney said he discovered unusual human resources practices, including scores that prevented employees from moving to another team. Often workers were not even aware such scores existed, he said, and would apply for open positions only to be ignored.

“I was worried that Amazon would have a habit of keeping information in a person’s personal file that managers can see and workers can’t,” he said.

Another promoter is Cher Scarlett, 36, a former Apple Inc. employee in Kirkland, who said she asked for her job description while on sick leave so her doctor could recommend accommodations that would allow her to continue to work while managing his bipolar disorder. Scarlett, who worked remotely for Apple, said she did not get the documents she needed and was planning to testify in favor of the legislation. Apple, which employs around 1,000 people in Washington and operates multiple stores in the state, declined to comment.

Kuderer’s bill gives companies 14 days to release personnel records to employees who request them or face fines of up to $ 1,000, plus employee court costs. The proposal also clarifies that personnel files include such items as job applications, performance reviews, disciplinary files and “all other records kept in a personnel or employment file for that employee, regardless or its designation ”.

Sponsored by the Washington Employment Lawyers Association, the bill was blocked in committee last year over fears it could drive up costs for businesses and encourage litigation. It again faces an “uphill battle” as this year’s legislative session lasts only 60 days and hundreds of bills will compete for attention, said Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy at the University of Washington. “Only a small percentage of bills become law, and there is so much before the legislature,” he said.

Yet Kim England, professor of geography and chair of social studies at the University of Washington, said the testimony of workers could help persuade reluctant lawmakers that there are legitimate issues of fairness and transparency that need to be resolved. “If there is a wide range of workers testifying, that is seen as a bigger problem,” she said.

When McGah asked for his personal records, he asked how his “Overall Value” score was calculated and what his score was, as it served to justify placing him on a performance improvement plan. Amazon did not give him the score or explain his calculation and said it was not required by law because Amazon did not consider these things to be part of his personal file, McGah said. Amazon declined to comment specifically on its concerns, beyond saying it had received documents to which it was entitled under the law.

McGah complained to the State Department of Labor and Industry, which said there was nothing it could do but send Amazon a letter reiterating its request. That is why he thinks the law should be strengthened.

“It’s the biggest employer in the state, and there’s this attitude that they can get around labor laws,” he said. “It was a huge upheaval in my life. I just want to know how these decisions are made.

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