Maybe Amazon’s Strange Workplace Rules Aren’t So Strange After All

One of the first things the Internet was good for was forwarding funny e-mails, and one of the first things that I ever received was a list of dumb laws around the country. You’ve likely been around long enough to know how these go (all from

  • In Iowa, a man with a moustache may never kiss a woman in public.
  • In Michigan, a woman isn’t allowed to cut her own hair without her husband’s permission.
  • In Arkansas, alligators may not be kept in bathtubs.

It’s fun to see these laws because they are so out of touch with the norms we have today. And I was reminded of that when I read an article about some of Amazon’s crazy rules for warehouse workers on Business Insider. I was sort of bemused by the list, but after I put on my HR hat, I could explain nearly all of these crazy rules.

Context, Context, Context

What was missing in all of the e-mails about dumb laws was the context.

In many cases, these laws made sense at the time. The thing that makes them dumb now is that many of them are out of date (most of the laws about cars are usually in the context of the early 20th Century), include social norms that are outdated (men vs. women, race based laws) or are now covered under existing laws and are redundant.

When I started looking at the rules, I was sort of shocked at some of them. But then I realized most of these were easily explainable when I looked at the context of the situation: namely the massive amounts of temp workers that they bring in for two months to pack and ship the stuff we all buy on Amazon.

The rules fell into three categories: loss prevention, time management/productivity, and absenteeism reduction.

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  1. Loss Prevention: Rules regarding the use of lipstick on the job, bringing gum, wearing watches or drinking water all point back to loss prevention measures. When you’re managing thousands of workers who will only be with your company for a month or two tops and you have the tight margins Amazon has, you can’t afford losses. So you leave all of those things at the door when you come in.
  2. Productivity and Time Management: Rules regarding the pace of work and clock in times are pretty typical in industries that manage a low margin line of business like a factory floor. And especially during the holidays, that’s what Amazon is: a massive factory filled with temporary workers. The amount of tape a person uses, an extra 15 minutes on the clock, or an extra minute or two spent on a package multiplies throughout the entire organization.
  3. Absenteeism Reduction: One of the toughest things to explain is their harsh absenteeism policy — at least on the surface. The problem is you have such a low threshold for mistakes when it comes to a temporary workforce. Missing three days over a two month period may not be a big deal generally, but when it is your busiest time of the year, and, when replacements who can work the entire period are available (and getting them trained and ready is a two to four hour task), it makes sense.

One more shout out to context

Now, I’ve known people who’ve worked killer shifts at Amazon. In the early days, many corporate employees would either be working the phones or processing orders. And from what I’ve heard, this time of year is absolutely brutal there.

Although I consider myself a progressive HR pro, these practices in context of the time of year, the business demand, and the workforce in question isn’t hard to justify. Amazon has a huge staffing challenge in managing thousands of temporary staff and it is in their best interest to manage it aggressively for the short period of extreme demand they have to work with.

And considering that Glassdoor ranked Amazon chief Jeff Bezos as second best CEO in the Seattle tech scene (along with an overall company rating that matched T-Mobile and Expedia), I think it is safe to say that their overarching policies aren’t as draconian as this list might suggest.

This proves again and again that when it comes to draconian sounding laws or workplace rules, context matters more than anything.


7 Comments on “Maybe Amazon’s Strange Workplace Rules Aren’t So Strange After All

  1. Having worked in distribution and packaging operations, I can attest to the necessity of the “no personal items on the floor” rule. Employees would either ‘forget’ or think it wouldn’t matter if they wore their watch or had their wallet in their pocket or kept a cell phone with them while packaging materials. The inevitable happened, and on quite a few occasions, recipients of the shipment would call back to report they opened their shipment and found a watch, a wallet or a cell phone….

  2. Lance, I recruited for Amazon, I can tell you this is 100% TRUE. Rules are strict for a reason. Major, Agressive hiring and training happens. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the warehouse…
    Great article!

    1. @Lance- It is Crazytown recruiting, and with people knocking the doors down to work there, you have to run a tight ship.. Time is money, and Attendance and productivity is crucial.. Best Job Ever!

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