Fired by a bot?

Amazon’s approach leaves much to be desired

Fired by a bot?

I have never have had a great memory but I remember clearly the day I was let go from my job nearly 20 years ago.

In my defence, 11 of us were let go in total, with the publication suffering from considerably lower advertising revenue. But it was definitely a shock.

I remember my manager asking me to step into her office for a quick meeting. I arrived to find another manager there and they then delivered the news in the best way they could, promptly but with empathy.

I was met with a few sympathetic words from colleagues as I was escorted to the elevator. Down in the lobby, I was given a taxi chit and left to wait for my ride. A few minutes later, another colleague came down to give me a hug and keep me company.

I was two months pregnant at the time and my employer knew, but I didn’t pursue the matter as a group of us were let go and the severance was reasonable.

But being pregnant added to the misery of the layoff, as I was so looking forward to working through the summer and then taking my maternity leave. Now I had months of emptiness ahead, with little chance of finding work before the birth, and an unexpected loss of income.

It took me a few days to recover from the initial shock, and another few days to transition to my new reality. In the end, I enjoyed a relaxed summer with a growing belly, and ended up doing freelance work for the company after my son was born.

But looking back, I definitely appreciate that the news was delivered by colleagues I admired, and was done in a respectful way.

Fired by a bot

I cannot imagine if the notice had been given by email or an app notification. And that, apparently, is how it’s being done for at least some employees at Amazon.

A recent article by Spencer Soper of BNN Bloomberg vividly describes the plight of delivery drivers unceremoniously let go by the retail giant through an automated device. Rated “Great” one week, they were then advised the next week that they no longer worked for the company as they failed to meet the job requirements.

“Increasingly, the company is ceding its human resources operation to machines as well, using software not only to manage workers in its warehouses but to oversee contract drivers, independent delivery companies and even the performance of its office workers. People familiar with the strategy say chief executive officer Jeff Bezos believes machines make decisions more quickly and accurately than people, reducing costs and giving Amazon a competitive advantage.”

Often, it was for reasons beyond the drivers’ control, such as locked apartment complexes not allowing deliveries or flat tires on remote roads. But the algorithm responses, from several “people” over the course of the correspondence, allowed for little insight or real dialogue.

Even Amazon managers say the largely automated system is “insufficiently attuned to the real-world challenges drivers face every day,” writes Soper. “Amazon knew delegating work to machines would lead to mistakes and damaging headlines, these former managers said, but decided it was cheaper to trust the algorithms than pay people to investigate mistaken firings so long as the drivers could be replaced easily.”

And when human managers get involved, “they typically conduct a hasty review — if they do one at all — because they must meet their own performance standards,” he says.

Amazon is a goliath, no doubt, so it has plenty of clout. And I guess that means it can afford to hire and fire with little concern for the human side of business. But if that’s the future of workforce management, it’s a very depressing one. When bots replace humans, there’s not much “human” left in human resources.

Latest stories