Few people would want to admit they nearly got fired from a job--especially from a big company like Amazon.

But a woman named Jane, who works at Amazon's headquarters in Seattle, came clean recently about her experience.

After previously being told that her work performance wasn't good enough, she was called into a meeting with her manager and someone from HR. They gave her three options:

  • Option 1: Take an Amazon company severance package, and walk away.
  • Option 2: Go on a performance improvement plan, part of something Amazon calls Pivot. She'd have to spend two months or more showing she could meet specific expectations from her manager.
  • Option 3: Fight back, by taking the whole thing to an employee appeal process in front of a jury of her Amazonian peers. It would be like "a video-conference version of the Thunderdome," as Bloomberg described it.

That last option sounded rough, especially for someone who didn't love confrontation.

Jane would have to face off against her boss, each (separately) going point-by-point through his disappointments with her performance, while the other Amazon employees watching decided who made the better case.

But, what did she have to lose at this point? Jane chose the Thunderdome. 

Avoiding a "death sentence"

The whole Pivot program, which includes pairing underperforming employees with "Career Ambassadors," can be traced to a controversy that arose over a New York Times expose on Amazon's culture in 2015.

Being put on a performance improvement plan was considered "a death sentence," according to Amazon employers who spoke with Business Insider around that time. (As you might recall, Amazon vehemently objected to the Times report.)

Amazon is giant, but it's still growing fast. As recently as 2012, it had only 80,000 employees. Now, it's over 500,000. It's a workforce the same size as if every man, woman and child in the city of Atlanta worked for them.

So it makes sense that Amazon is trying to come up with new ways to manage so many people.

Bloomberg describes it as taking a page from the grievance procedures that exist in some union jobs--even though employees like Jane aren't actually in a union. And not everyone thinks the system is setup to be fair to begin with.

"It's a kangaroo court. My impression of the process is it's totally unfair," one Seattle employment lawyer who represented an Amazon employee who participated in the process told Bloomberg.

Sweating through her shirt

The most compelling appeals are the ones where the employee previously had good work performance, but recently wound up with a new manager, a source told Bloomberg.

But that wasn't what happened with Jane's employment performance, as she described it.

Instead, her troubles stemmed from her boss's having recently changed her job responsibilities and establishing unrealistic goals for her work, she told Bloomberg.

On the day of the hearing, she was nervous and "sweated through her shirt." It had been her choice to have her case heard by one manager or three non-managers, and she had the right to object to any individual person on the panel. She chose the three non-managers. 

After her boss was done speaking, she received a call from H.R. Bad news. She'd lost. About 70 percent of employees lose their appeals.

With the Thunderdome option complete, the HR person said Jane was back to the other options: Take the severance, or go on the improvement plan. She chose the plan.

Back to life, back to reality

Win or lose, if you stay with Amazon, there's a chance you wind up working for the same manager who just tried to get you fired. There's a process to allow you to create a new position within the company with a different manager, but apparently that's only if you win.

Regardless of the outcome, I think it would take some extraordinary people, on both sides of that equation, to be able to get past the whole Thunderdome experience and find a way to work together effectively. 

Here's what Amazon had to say about the program in a statement it emailed to Bloomberg:

Pivot is a uniquely Amazonian program that was thoughtfully designed to provide a fair and transparent process for employees who need support.

When employees are placed in Pivot, they have the option of working with their manager and HR to improve with a clear plan forward, of leaving Amazon with severance, or of appealing if they feel they shouldn't be in the program.

Just over a year into program, we're pleased with the support it offers our employees and we're continuing to iterate based on employee feedback and their needs.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated details about Amazon's appeal process. Underperforming employees are made aware ahead of time that their work is considered substandard, and they address the peer panel separately from their boss. They have the option to spend two months or more following a performance improvement plan if they lose the appeal, and may create a new job with a different manager if they win.

Published on: Jun 26, 2018