Amazon Ambassadors: Innovative or Unethical?

Amazon is giving new meaning to the phrase “social-media influencer.”

The tech giant, long plagued by reports about poor working conditions and pay for workers, recently rolled out a new approach to manage its reputation: Fulfillment Center Ambassadors. A report last month in The Guardian outed the program, in which the company is seemingly paying workers to post positive messages on Twitter about their employment experiences at Amazon. At least 16 Twitter profiles were created in August, using Amazon’s logo as their cover photo, and only the user’s first name. Users describe in their profiles that they work in Amazon warehouses at locations throughout the country and in varying jobs. But they all have one thing in common: They have nothing but praise to heap on Amazon as an employer.

The Twitter users post about aspects such as pay, safety, benefits and rewards practices. Amazon confirmed to The Guardian that the “ambassadors” are not bots, as some critics contended, but are experienced warehouse employees who freely choose to “do this full time.” The statement says the workers receive their same pay, though there are few other details about the program’s compensation structures.

That workers are being paid brings the credibility of their messages into question, says Michael Serazio, assistant professor in the department of communication at Boston College.

“If people don’t know the workers are being paid, there could be a potential benefit to Amazon,” Serazio says, but once it became common knowledge that the ambassadors are compensated for their posting, “that naturally comprised the integrity of their messages. It only works if it’s authentic, and if these folks are being paid to do it, it raises the question of if it’s really authentic cheerleading for the company or not.”

Jennifer Benz, CEO and founder of Benz Communications, a benefits-communication marketing firm, notes that many organizations urge employees to share positive workplace experiences on job sites like Glassdoor–but agrees that the pay aspect sets Amazon’s program apart.

“I don’t think it’s completely unusual to encourage people to share stories,” she says, “I just don’t know of very many setting up direct pay.”

While Amazon’s approach has come under fire on social media circles, including with the launch of a number of parody ambassador accounts, Sharlyn Lauby, HR consultant and president of ITM Group Inc., says the initiative could be seen as an extension of the debate around employee-referral bonuses.

For instance, she says, if a company’s cost per hire is $5,000 and an employee refers a successful new hire, why shouldn’t it follow that the organization rewards the referring worker with a little cash?

“Is it possible the same philosophy applies here?” she asks. “The question is, ‘Are Amazon’s motives nefarious?’ ”

Regardless of the motives for the new program, the fact remains that social media has become integral to a company’s reputation–including among current and prospective employees. “In today’s competitive labor market,” Lauby says, “organizations should assume that candidates are checking them out before they apply. And the most logical place to do that is on the internet and social media.”

That reality means that the intersection of brand management and the employee experience has never been more important.

“Brands live in a very precious time right now, where each individual has the potential to broadcast their bad experience at a corporation to the whole world,” Serazio says. “And, if it’s bad enough, the whole world could take notice, both customers and employees.”

Looked at from another angle, those same employees have the power to positively influence the public perception of the employer brand, seemingly the goal of Amazon’s new program. But short of enticing employees with pay or other benefits to post positively on social media, how can companies incorporate workers into social-media management?

Serazio says it’s pretty straightforward: “If you want employee to say nice things about the company, you have to treat your employees well. And that will naturally follow that people will then post authentically and take the initiative.”

The challenge, Benz notes, is that in a lot of organizations, HR works in so many silos that the message job candidates get about the employer, and their actual experience once they’re hired, can be quite different. A consistent employee experience, she adds, can help fuel a positive corporate culture.

“The best thing [HR leaders can do] is to have a positive company culture to start with,” she says. “If you are taking really good care of your employees, they’re naturally going to be sharing and spreading those stories outside of the organization.”

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at