Tina Oakley: “I don’t recognise most of what’s written about us”

Amazon’s UK HR director is used to coming under attack. But is the business really as bad as its critics suggest?

Tina Oakley: “I don’t recognise most of what’s written about us”

Nothing quite prepares you for the otherworldliness of the Amazon fulfilment centre in Tilbury, Essex. The size of 28 football pitches, it has been claimed as the largest building in the country. Its 2,000 workers pack, sort and ship millions of parcels, yet such is its vastness, it sometimes barely seems busy. And on its top floor, giant robotic stacks of products glide across the floor like wardrobes on wheels, a strange but not altogether unpleasant glimpse into the future of logistics.

Amazon’s pre-eminence in e-commerce has made it one of the world’s most advanced and data-led retailers, and its most disruptive employer. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, is said to make around $150,000 per minute and almost 90 per cent of the UK’s adult population is a customer. But its short history has been riven with controversy: it has regularly been slated in the media for the health and safety record in its warehouses, excessive employee monitoring and what have been reported as gruelling conditions.

As HR director for UK operations, including 21 giant fulfilment centres and around 27,000 employees, Tina Oakley – now in her fifth year with the business after a lengthy HR career, most recently at Gatwick Airport – is the ideal person to explain the truth about how the company works. Which is why People Management went to meet her to understand the real story behind the headlines. 

Do you think Amazon is an example of ‘good work’ and, if so, what does that mean?

Most of our associates [employees] know they are making a difference to a customer. They know that parcel is going to make someone happy. We are pretty good at helping people identify the purpose of what they’re doing. But good work is also about how you feel about the way you’re managed and that has been a massive focus for us. It’s about opportunities to increase your money, such as overtime. And how you progress and become better at your job. 

Can we do more? Of course. We’re looking at that proposition every day, at how we can make it better and communicate it better. But if you look at people as you go round [the warehouse], they don’t look unhappy. They greet you, they look you in the eye. That’s how I judge things. I think we’ve created a pretty positive environment.

You say you work a lot on associate experience. What does that mean?

Today, at least three hours of my morning have been spent reviewing every aspect of associate experience, literally reviewing every incident that may have happened – from a bus not arriving or the canteen running out of cups, right up to more serious things. In all my operational experience, I have never spent that amount of time, in that amount of detail, looking at experience. That shows the commitment at a senior level. 

It’s seeing things from associates’ perspectives and understanding that while getting a certain number of boxes out is important, what’s important to them is that they have a manageable workload and don’t feel under undue pressure. We would rather have people who want to come to work and exhibit positive behaviours, than people who might be super fast at getting boxes out but do not contribute to the broader community in terms of teamwork or behaviours. That’s not what people expect of Amazon. And we also give a lot of positive recognition. 

You’re known for the array of analytical tools you have at your disposal in HR. What sort of information do they offer you?

We get the standard information in terms of attrition – which is not high here – planned and unplanned absence, return to work interviews. We measure everything known to man, but we also use AI behind the scenes. We can begin to predict if someone is thinking about leaving, looking at triggers of certain behaviours. It’s a complicated machine learning algorithm, but we are a science-based HR function. We have machine learning engineers and scientists working for us who can use that knowledge in the background to give data to people who can make a judgement about what we do next. 

We’ve just introduced a tool called Engage – one of the real deep metrics for us. Every frontline manager will get a prompt to say it’s someone’s birthday, or it’s a milestone anniversary or something else in their personal life. Or if we see signs someone might not be so happy working here, we can have a conversation about that, too. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere.

We have an index that measures associates’ and leaders’ sentiment towards safety because, if leaders don’t feel safe, your associates won’t either. 

If I’d known the power of data – and the power of having a bias for action and diving into something as soon as it presents itself – I would have done my previous HR director roles differently, and probably better as a result. From an HR point of view, it’s a major culture shock in terms of the expectations around data and the associate focus. 

What do you hope those analytical capabilities will help you do next?

We certainly can’t keep scaling as the business keeps getting bigger. We can’t keep adding HR heads or we’d be this massive department. So we need to look at simplification and, where there is a predictable process decision, we use technology to answer that. A lot of the administration and regular process will be taken away from us. 

In talent management, we have a great set of tools and soon we will have new ones that talk to each other so you don’t need separate data sets. We do a lot of succession planning and assessments for future capability using talent review technology – all built in-house to meet our particular needs – which means that as an HR professional you can focus not on what the data is telling you, but what you are going to do about it.

If you take all the grievances and escalations that happen, as they do in any company, we are looking at using technology to take lessons from them all. But that doesn’t take away judgement. It will say ‘in 100 similar cases, these were the range of outcomes’ but you still have to make a decision 
in that particular case. It will save a lot of time for HR.

Some of the data inputs you are describing, some people would see as excessive monitoring of staff

We have a lot of management information because of the nature of our processes and because we need it to ensure we are delivering for our customers. How we choose to use it is where judgement comes in. We use it lightly, we deal with the outliers, so most people will find they’re not having a negative conversation. We use metrics sensibly and intelligently with people.

Would you defend your record on health and safety?

I think we stand very highly as an employer. Every meeting, without fail, starts with a safety tip and we look at any incident large or small and what we can learn from it. We’re doing the right things and we have absolute visibility about how people feel about safety, so we are confident in that. I don’t think it’s an unsafe environment. I’ve worked on the ramp at Heathrow, which was probably an unsafe environment at the time. We focus on safety a lot and we deal with concerns immediately. There are so many voice mechanisms onsite and people do use them. 

So nobody is having to pee in a bottle because they can’t have a toilet break?

That doesn’t happen. When we launch buildings, I spend so much time looking at the distance of the toilets from where the bulk of people work and we build extra toilets if that’s not satisfactory. We take it very seriously and, let’s be clear, nobody has their toilet breaks monitored.

Do you feel many of the criticisms of you as an employer are unfair?

Yes I do. When I first joined, I didn’t know what was fair or unfair. But now, I would say most of the stories are old takes on things that did or did not happen. When you read something you genuinely don’t recognise in your workplace, you go and find out if it’s the truth. 

We investigate to a very deep level. I personally get very involved in any kind of accusation that’s thrown at us. We can never be complacent. Because of the size of the buildings and the number 
of people, things can happen. The point is to take the incident seriously, explore it, satisfy yourself all is OK and, if it’s not, put it right. I don’t recognise most of what’s written and sometimes I find it very frustrating, but I worked for high-profile organisations like British Airways and even when it was at its most successful, people wanted to find something that wasn’t right, even though 
it was a fantastic place to work.

How did you approach your role?

When I came in, the team were pretty demotivated. I took the opportunity to talk to lots of people and they felt there were so many requests on their time they weren’t doing anything well. That’s when we developed a model that was clearer on who was supporting associates, middle managers and seniors, and 
what everyone’s respective role was. 

People told us ‘when we can find someone, you’re amazing, but we can’t always find someone’. So we extended our hours – working until midnight is not always popular with HR people, but we do rotate it. We became customer obsessed, which was well received by managers, associates and the HR team.

I’ve worked with a number of fantastic HR professionals in my career and there are a few I think would be successful here. There’s a larger number who are very successful in their organisations, but they’re not ‘Amazonians’, as we call it. It’s hard to put your finger on what that is, but you know it when you live it. You are learning every day. It’s the scale, the pace, the unpredictability. From an HR point of view, there is a real opportunity to influence here.