In August 2015, The New York Times published an article exposing e-commerce giant Amazon.com’s competitive office environment, in which employees were expected to perform like robots, anonymously snitch on coworkers, and be on call 24/7 (Kantor & Streitfeld, 2015 August 15). This coverage brought in a great deal of public outrage, as witnessed by nearly 6,000 reader comments to the article on the article’s webpage. Enraged by this exposé, many commenters swore off buying products from Amazon and/or never wanting themselves, their offspring, and spouses to work for the company. This accusation played out while Amazon was engaging in aggressive multinational corporate advertisements to recruit the best talents, featuring current employees’ testimonials about how stimulating it is to work for Amazon.
In the meantime, Amazon’s customer-obsessed business model has allowed it to eclipse even Wal-Mart. So, it may be legitimate to ask these questions: “Why do these accusations of hostile work culture have no negative impact on Amazon’s success?” and “Does employee dissent voice have any external impact as long as customers are happy with the company’s products and services?”
Venues through which employees can voice their dissatisfaction had been typically limited to informal, internal communication channels such as corporate gossip vines or a type of water-cooler conversation. However, the communication boundary between employees and external audiences have become blurred due to the prevalence of internet discussion boards and video sharing sites such as YouTube, where both insiders and outsiders could come together to share their organizational experiences and opinions in the form of posts or comments.
Kulik and the colleagues (2011) found that employees are likely to capitalize on online anonymity to express their dissenting voice against their organization and the cognitive content posed on such online discussion boards influenced the emotional tone of reply messages. With the ubiquity of social media’s influences in virtually every aspect of contemporary lives, employees are now increasingly able to voice their dissatisfaction via social media with hundreds or thousands of people outside the organization.
As much as social media can provide a great deal of direct access to external stakeholders and have a potential to bring out employee and customer engagement with organizations, it is a double-edged sword that can potentially harm organizations in a much greater extent. So, when rumors of a company’s unethical treatment of employees or negative work culture circulate, they negatively impact on the company’s reputation, which can result in consumer boycotts, difficulties in talent acquisition, high employee turnover, etc.
If an internal mechanism (e.g., suggestion box, suggestion comment, grievance comment, meeting with HR manager, ombudsman, open-door policy, internal email, hotline or attitude surveys) is in place for employees to voice their concerns and opinions and these voices are being reflected in company policies, these expressions of employee dissent can be strategically guided to advantage organizations, providing an untapped resource for enhancing reputations (Miles & Mangold, 2014). However, without such a mechanism to address legitimate employee dissent employee voices can be “a bomb waiting to explode with devastating impact” (p. 401) on the company reputation.
Partial results of this research project, which addresses the impact of employee dissent voice on corporate reputation, and external outcomes such as e-loyalty and negative WOM, were presented at the 2017 IPRRC Conference in Orlando, Florida, on March 10th.
Minjeong Kang, Ph. D., is an assistant professor and teaches Public Relations courses at the Media School, Indiana University. Her research interests are understanding the concept of public engagement in various stakeholder contexts such as member, employee, and volunteer relations and its positive impacts in eliciting supportive communication and behavioral outcomes.
Kantor, J. & Streitfeld, D. (2015 August 15). Inside Amazon: wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace, The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html
Kulik, C. T., Pepper, M. B., Shapiro, D. L., & Cregan, C. (2012). The electronic water cooler: Insiders and outsiders talk about organizational justice on the internet. Communication Research, 39(5), 565-591.
Miles, S. J., & Mangold, W. G. (2014). Employee voice: Untapped resource or social media time bomb? Business Horizons, 57(3), 401-411.