Amazon music

Amazon Music fought its own company to keep its employees


  • Amazon has a notorious policy of forcing teams to lay off 6% of their employees each year.
  • In a rare rebuke, Amazon Music’s management team refused to let go of people this year and is being celebrated for resisting politics.

Amazon Music executives have had enough. Amazon wanted them to push their underachievers out of the business, forcing them to manage 6% of employees each year. Their division started 2021 on the right track. But as the pandemic persisted, they simply didn’t have enough people to back out. Or, as they put it, there was “an insufficient pipeline to meet the target.” So instead of moving forward, they protested to Amazon Music VP Steve Boom.

“Unregretted Attrition” – or URA as it’s known at Amazon – is cold, corporate language for the lost employees you’re happy to see go. The rapidly growing Amazon accepts that it won’t touch every hire. So that forces those in charge of certain divisions, like music, to make sure that bad fits go away. And much like Amazon, it quantifies that goal, so everyone is moving forward. However, as the pandemic drags on, some divisions have struggled to hire and managers are feeling rushed, urged to push back their solid performers. The situation is now reaching a breaking point within Amazon, where protests from the management of Music indicate an ongoing calculation.

“The crisis right now is that good people are leaving and hiring is struggling,” said a former Amazon manager. “And they are asked to deal with people at a more aggressive pace because they are late.”

During their meeting with Boom, which took place this summer, Amazon Music management explained that they would not support a push to meet the unrepentant 6% attrition target. To achieve this, they would have to put 111 employees on notice in a performance plan called Focus. The ensuing misery could cause many people to leave on their own. But the music direction just couldn’t find enough people to justify being a part of the program. “Executives fundamentally disagreed with Amazon’s return to 6% URA,” said an internal Amazon document outlining the meeting, “and called for HR to rethink the performance management mechanisms for the organization”.

Music’s rare reprimand of Amazon’s human resources practices has exploded internally thanks to a miscommunication. Someone with access to the meeting documentation accidentally emailed it to a larger group of employees, who have since shared it widely. Amazon employees are now reviewing the document and many are celebrating it. “In all my years at Amazon, this is the first time that I have heard an organization-wide movement for several managers to push back the S team’s goal of 6% URA,” said said a person from the Amazon group on Blind, a forum app that requires a company email address to join. S-Team refers to the management team of Amazon. “Thanks for standing up for us Plebs.”

The former Amazon director quoted above reviewed the memo and said it was a good thing it was released. “I loved working at Amazon and still admire the company, despite its difficult times,” said the director. “But as a shareholder and friend of many current employees, I hope they will grow. As a hiring manager, however, I take advantage of their influx of talent. It is their game to lose.”

Amazon’s culture has long been its competitive advantage. Under Jeff Bezos, the company built a system that enables bottom-up invention and kept it relevant despite its age and size. Amazon encourages employees to put the future of the business before the present, to think big, and to make invention the heart of their work (you can read more about this in “Always Day One”). But the company is also demanding, sometimes brutally, and it can lose sight of the humanity of its employees – which is neither good nor in its strategic interest. Amazon’s insistence on hitting “unrequited attrition” milestones, to the point of excluding strong performers, is one example of the downsides of culture.

Change may be on the way though. In Amazon Music’s internal documentation, a plan to move beyond the unrepentant attrition strategy within Amazon Music is beginning to emerge. “Amazon Music is at a unique inflection point,” he said, “making it a suitable time to experiment with mental models and mechanisms of performance management.” The rest of the paper is short on the details, but it makes it clear that the current business model is untenable, and a new approach must start with the assumption that Amazon employees want to excel, and fall behind or be mean is “inherently dissonant” with the way they see themselves. When asked if Amazon plans to rethink its unrepentant attrition targets, the company declined to comment.