Photo: Zappos

Wednesday 11th June 2014

Stunt growth

Do HR gimmicks - as practised by US footwear floggers Zappos – really have a place in business?

It might come as news to some of you, but HR can be boring. Sorry, it’s true. Not everybody is thrilled by organisational development, performance management or talent analytics to the extent that many HR practitioners are.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that, every now and then, somebody tries to inject some quirkiness into HR. You know the sort of thing – a company introduces a new way of treating its people, puts out a press release and before you know it, it’s being reported in the big papers.

In most of these cases, it’s a positive thing. A company promises to do something differently for the benefit of its people and its bottom line. Good news all round.

But sometimes, these are nothing more than flimsy attempts at self-promotion, with questionable foundations and results that end up never being publicised.

Zappos, I’m looking at you.

If there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know about Zappos, it’s a huge online footwear retailer with an annual turnover upwards of a billion dollars. It was formed in the first dotcom bubble, has outlived many of its peers, and was bought by Amazon a few years back. A genuine success story.

And yet, this doesn’t seem to be enough for Zappos and its CEO, Tony Hsieh. Because it seems like every six months, we hear about another ‘interesting’ innovation Zappos has introduced to get the most out of its people.

Inside job

The latest of these was the news that Zappos is scrapping job postings and will no longer accept direct applications. Instead, it expects candidates to sign up to an online community called ‘Zappos Insiders’. From there, they need to demonstrate their worth through their interactions with current Zappos employees.

So according to Zappos, that’s it. No job ads, no response to CVs sent in. It doesn’t matter if you’re the industry’s most stellar candidate, you have to become a ‘Zappos Insider’ to get a foot in the door.

It’s an interesting announcement – not necessarily because it sounds like it will be effective. Instead, it all sounds contrived and oddly counterproductive.

Zappos is narrowing its pool of candidates. What about potentially great ones who don’t have the time, inclination or resources to pursue a vacancy in this way? Just because a job seeker doesn’t want to (or can’t) go down this route, it doesn’t mean they’re not worth hiring.

So, there’s a chance this initiative might backfire – but will we ever hear about it if it does?

I ask this, because Zappos has trotted out plenty of these announcements in the past – and it’s hard to get hold of any proof of how successful – or unsuccessful – they’ve been. If only they were as keen to publicise the results of these schemes as they were to trumpet their launches.

Power of HR

It seems Zappos is the Paddy Power of HR – pulling these stunts primarily to get column inches in the business press, with little attention paid to the follow-up.

Let’s look at some previous examples.

Earlier this year Zappos abandoned its hierarchical management structure, in favour of a set-up without job titles and managers. As a people policy, it’s as groundbreaking as a supply teacher telling a class to rip up their textbooks and take the lesson on the grass outside because it’s sunny.

Last year Zappos unveiled plans for new headquarters in Las Vegas, which it admitted were designed to be deliberately smaller and less convenient than other corporate spaces. This is apparently to ‘encourage employee collisions’, which the company believes foster collaboration. (As opposed to fostering trips to A&E.)

Zappos is also known for putting all new recruits through its customer service training, regardless of the role they’ve been hired for. Okay, so this isn’t such a stretch, but does Zappos really need to crow about it so much?

In an interview with respected business journal Playboy, Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh also boasted of a company culture that involves ‘liberal shots of Grey Goose, a guy in a hot-dog suit doing back flips, Tutu Tuesdays, a horse on the 10th floor of the office for Chinese New Year, and more’. It sounds like most right-minded employees’ idea of hell.

(Just look at CEO Tony Hsieh’s picture – what a wacky funster!)

What’s wrong with being normal?

There’s no doubt Zappos is a successful business, but this could simply be due to the fact it sells shoes for the right price and gets them to customers on time. It’s not rocket science. It’s easy to suspect these people initiatives are relatively unimportant to Zappos’ continued success. They’re simply a PR mechanism.

Instead of devoting time to these attention-grabbing but ultimately hollow people policies, why doesn’t Zappos just openly commit to a set of core principles for the good of its staff? You know the sort of thing – diverse hiring strategies, good reward policies, opportunity for progression and mobility, solid development plans. These are what most candidates would aspire to; not Tutu Tuesdays.

Is it because these aren’t headline-grabbing enough? Because they don’t conform to the beanbag-breakout-area, fireman’s pole, astro-turfed ‘thinking space’ clichés we expect from successful dotcoms?

Well, perhaps that’s the key to Zappos’ next move – maybe by doing something dull but effective it can truly stand out from the crowd.

About the author

John Eccleston

John is a writer and editor who has written about HR and recruitment, among other topics, for as long as he can remember. If he's not at his keyboard, you'll probably find him in the kitchen, at a pub quiz, or buying more trainers.