What impact will Covid-19 have on talent acquisition and retention? It’s a question I found myself pondering this week on reading the news that a senior Amazon executive has quit over its treatment of warehouse workers.
In a stinging rebuke of the tech giant’s ethical practices, vice-president Tim Bray described the sacking of warehouse staff who had protested about coronavirus safety measures as “evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture”.
We should be cautious of drawing too many conclusions from Bray’s specific case. There may be more complex reasons for his disaffection with his employer than have been presented in his own blog post. Yet his resignation speaks to fundamental questions many of us are asking ourselves about the purpose of businesses and the extent to which we perceive them to be on our side (or not) during the pandemic, both as customers and as employees.
Which brings me to the subject of acquisition and retention. Logic dictates that as we emerge from this crisis those businesses still standing will have their pick of a hugely expanded talent pool. Amazon, it can be argued, will not pay for its alleged poor treatment of workers because there will be another dozen candidates with Tim Bray’s skillset ready to step into his shoes.
There is doubtless more than a grain of truth in this perspective. The counter-argument, however, is that Tim Bray will move seamlessly into a senior engineering role at another tech firm where the knowledge accrued during his five years at Amazon can be put to work. The same goes for other executives with Bray’s level of experience.
One senior defection is not going to sink a tanker like Amazon, but if a single drip becomes a trickle and then a steady flow the accumulated loss of expertise and institutional memory becomes harder to manage.
The same goes for other businesses whose response to Covid-19 has lacked a human element. Just as the public will be thinking about who they will reward with their custom when this is over, retail executives will be looking at businesses such as the Co-op and Morrisons, who have won widespread plaudits for their treatment of staff and suppliers and comparing their actions with those of their own employer. If those comparisons are unfavourable their loyalty is likely to be tested when lockdown restrictions start to ease and the jobs market begins to move again.
Sharing his learnings on trading through lockdown, Pets at Home chief executive Peter Pritchard wrote this week that businesses should have a purpose that is greater than just taking sales. He added: “Your colleagues won’t thank you for putting sales ahead of their safety or fears.”
Pritchard is right. Navigating a post-COVID-19 landscape will require retailers to have exceptional people on their side at all levels of the organisation. Actions taken now to preserve sales will ultimately prove short-sighted if the effect is to limit your future ability to keep hold of your greatest assets – your people.