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An Experiment Mixing Caring, Accountability

One way to understand Zappos is to see the firm as a giant petri dish in which management ideas from the last five decades are mixed together.

September 25, 2009
Related Topics: Career Development, Corporate Culture, Motivating Employees, Employee Career Development, HR & Business Administration
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One way to understand Zappos is to see the firm as a giant petri dish in which management ideas from the last five decades are mixed together.

If employee empowerment has gained currency in the past 10 years or so, Zappos takes the concept to the extreme. Employees have discretion rarely seen in the corporate world. They use their best judgment—rather than a script—in handling customer calls. They receive detailed information about the firm’s financial performance. They blog and Twitter unshackled by extensive company policies.

    “It’s almost like a social experiment,” says Zappos recruiter Andrew Kovacs. “You put trust in people and they kind of want to live up to that trust.”

Zappos also embraces a notion dating back to the 1950s or ’60s that work and life can blend together in a satisfying way. Recruiting manager Christa Foley says that ideally if people are passionate about their work, love their company and feel connected to colleagues, the divide between personal and professional dissolves. Someone might go out with the team, or take his kid to a picnic on the weekend with other company employees.

“We’re not looking to hire people who are looking for a work/life balance,” she says.

Zappos also wants employees who want to stick around. One of the questions the firm asks on its annual employee survey is “Could you see yourself at Zappos in 10 years?”

“We want that answer to be yes,” Foley says.

Zappos’ benefits—such as 100 percent medical coverage for employees, including co-pays—hearken back to the days of generous dot-coms or the paternalistic firms of the ’50s.

But infused in the mix is a late 20th century focus on results. Last year, the company laid off 124 people, or 8 percent of its workforce, to prepare for the downturn. And it based some of those decisions on employee performance. Zappos chief executive Tony Hsieh draws a distinction between the employment security of 50 years ago and what his firm is after. You might call it a blend of caring and accountability.

“We definitely don’t want anyone to feel that they’re entitled to employment for life,” he says. “It’s more about us creating an environment and growth opportunities for our employees such that they want to be employees for life.”

Workforce Management, September 14, 2009, p. 21 -- Subscribe Now!

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