Amazon instructs managers not to tell office employees that they are on a formal performance-management plan that puts their job in jeopardy unless the employee explicitly asks, according to guidance from an Amazon intranet page for managers.
The policy, a copy of which was viewed by The Seattle Times, helps explain why some Amazon employees have described the experience of being on the performance-management plan, called Focus, as baffling and demoralizing. Some managers, too, question why they are asked to conceal that their employees are on a pathway that often leads out of the company.
The secrecy surrounding performance management is one more reason why some Amazon office employees say the company is not living up to its April pledge to become “Earth’s Best Employer.”
Amazon tracks the number of employees in Focus in the context of meeting its goal for “unregretted attrition,” the roughly 6% of office employees Amazon hopes to pressure out of the company each year, according to internal Amazon human resources documents. The company expects more than one-third of employees in Focus to fail the program and leave Amazon.
Business Insider detailed employees’ Focus frustrations in May. In interviews with The Seattle Times, Amazon employees and managers also shared concerns about the transparency and utility of the Focus program.
As it’s described by the company, Focus is a way to help underperforming employees get back on track. Managers are supposed to deliver documented coaching to employees on Focus over a period of weeks or months. But some workers who have been on Focus say they were never told what their performance deficiencies were, or how they could improve.
Four current and former Amazon employees said they found out they were in Focus by accident — for instance, when they attempted to transfer to another team and were told they would need additional approvals. They described the experience of not knowing whether they were on Focus, or how to get off, as emotionally draining.
Meanwhile, three current and former managers said they believed it was counterproductive to keep employees guessing about whether they were on the performance-management plan.
The internal guidance, which is current as of July, is in the form of an FAQ on an intranet page for managers describing the Focus program.
“Should I tell an employee that I entered them into Focus?” the question reads. The response: “Do not discuss Focus with employees. Instead, tell the employee that their performance is not meeting expectations, the specific areas where they need to improve, and offer feedback and support to help them improve.”
“If the employee directly asks, ‘Am I in Focus?’ you should answer honestly,” the response continues. “However, remind the employee that the use of a specific product should not be their take-away from the conversation, as there are important performance gaps they must address.”
In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said that Focus is primarily oriented toward keeping managers accountable for dealing with underperformance on their teams.
“Like most employers, we provide managers with tools to help employees improve their performance and grow in their careers at Amazon,” Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson said in a statement. “This includes resources for employees who are not meeting expectations and may require additional coaching.”
Employees have access to “multiple channels” to discuss their performance assessment, “including our employee resource center, their direct HR business partner, and our anonymous hotline,” Anderson said.
Focus replaced an earlier performance-management tool, called the “development list,” by 2019. Under that earlier tool, the guidance to managers was the same: Don’t tell employees when they’re placed on the list, according to one former senior Amazon manager who said he reluctantly complied with the rule.
“Openness is one of the key things I liked about Amazon when I was working there,” he said. “Someone has got formal action taken against them by the company and they don’t know about it? It just didn’t smell right to me.”
One Amazon engineer, who joined the company in late 2016, said he found out that he had been on the development list for nearly 18 months only after his manager changed. His new manager, he said, inquired about his performance-management plan.
“My response was, ‘Are you sure you don’t have your wires crossed?'” he said. The shock of learning he was on a performance-improvement plan, he said, was rapidly replaced by bewilderment as he tried without success to get off the plan for six more months.
“No one would tell me what my status was,” he said. “I ended up in this weird, nebulous performance hell for a few years.”
An Amazon Web Services employee, a foreign citizen of color working on a team of mostly American citizens, said she learned she had been placed into Focus in early 2020 only after her application for an internal transfer was flagged for further review.
The employee, who is still on Focus, said she suspects disparate treatment because of her nationality and ethnic background. In her previous role at Amazon, based outside the U.S., her performance had been rated so highly that her current team petitioned for her transfer and sponsored her visa.
“I’m not against performance management, if the idea behind it is to provide [employees] with coaching and guidance to become a better employee,” she said. That’s not been her experience on Focus. The program “is all hush-hush. It’s a hidden way of weeding out people who are not part of the clique,” she said.
Not every employee is in the dark. Some managers flout the rules and reveal to their subordinates that they are on Focus, according to two managers and documentation of one employee’s Focus plan seen by The Seattle Times.
“I always broke the rule,” said one senior Amazon manager. “If I cannot share that an employee is on a coaching plan, how can I give him a fair evaluation?”