Anyone who has ever used Amazon Prime to receive a same-day delivery will have some idea of just how efficient Jeff Bezos’ retail giant is. With hundreds of items shipping every second during busy times, employees have to operate with machine-like efficiency to keep things moving out of the door.
The extent of this may surprise you, though. According to documents recently uncovered by The Verge, Amazon fired “hundreds” of employees at just one of its fulfillment centers between August 2017 and September 2018 for failing to meet efficiency thresholds. While you’d expect a certain amount of turnover to take place, the reason the documents have been singled out is because they describe how automation is used as part of the process.
Amazon associates are measured according to a “proprietary productivity metric” which states how quickly they must process each order. Amazon reportedly uses smart technology to determine how long employees take between tasks, and to reprimand them where necessary. “Amazon’s system tracks the rates of each individual associate’s productivity, and automatically generates any warnings or terminations regarding quality or productivity without input from supervisors,” the letter reads.
Amazon, however, has hit back at the idea that employees can be fired by machine. “It is absolutely not true that employees are terminated through an automatic system,” an Amazon spokesperson told MIT Technology Review. “We would never dismiss an employee without first ensuring that they had received our fullest support, including dedicated coaching to help them improve and additional training. Since we’re a company that continues to grow, it’s our business objective to ensure long-term career development opportunities for our employees.”
Amazon goes on to note that, like many other companies, it has performance expectations for staff. “We support people who do not perform to the levels expected of them with dedicated coaching to help them improve and be successful in their career at Amazon,” it continued.
It’s possible to argue both for and against this method of managing employees. With thousands of workers in a warehouse, and tight time constraints, Amazon could well point out that tools such as these are the most efficient way of ensuring that work gets done. An automated system also has greater levels of objectivity than, say, a human manager who may exhibit bias in their performance reviews. On the other hand, it certainly feeds into the treating-humans-as-robots idea lampooned on South Park and elsewhere.