Demanding Performance Review Transparency for All Workers

21 Dec 2021

Today, life-long STEM nerd and former Amazon drone engineer Pat McGah shares his experience — from requesting transparency in order to make improvements, to discovering managerial malice called “unregretted attrition” and other strategies to force out workers, and finally, to organizing and demanding transparency for all workers in Washington state. Although transparency into workplace decisions seems like common sense when it comes to employee performance reviews, promotions, and firings, managers can legally hide almost anything they want.

TODO: alt (hover) text

If only the fate of your job was this clear, smooth, or pretty.

The Worker’s Perspective

by Pat McGah

I can be described as bookish, and advocacy is not an obvious fit for my personality. My professional background is STEM and I nerd-out on about scientific developments. To give you a sense of my disposition, I like to read articles about COVID treatments in the New England Journal of Medicine between family duties. But close study of my work and labor law led me to organizing.

About six years ago, I took a job at a small software company called CD-adapco. We developed and sold an engineering software used for thermal and fluid flow analysis. I was in a customer-facing role which consisted of doing trainings or one-on-one support with end-users. CD-adapco was bought by Siemens after being there for about a year. Siemens is a megacorporation, and there were some jitters in the office at first, but it was a smooth transition overall. Then I started doing support for Amazon Prime Air - the drones project.

Like most, I had heard the horror stories about working at Amazon. I thought, “I don’t know. There’s a spectrum of experiences, good and bad.” I knew the group, and they appeared to have their shit together. It was a huge increase in pay - doubled my compensation. Seattle is not cheap, especially for a family of four. That factored big into my thinking. I accepted the job and started at the end of 2019.

I like to believe companies are acting in good faith toward their employees. They weren’t perfect, but Siemens and CD-adapco always acted in good faith. Unfortunately, my experience at Amazon taught me that they weren’t always acting in good faith. In Washington State, there’s no legal requirement for “good faith and fair dealing” in the employment relationship.

It’s all based on the doctrine of at-will employment. Your employer can act in bad faith to you. They can bulldoze you, and there’s really not much you can do to stop them. It really radicalized me. The at-will doctrine is a pernicious one that can be exploited by bad actors.

Things started snowballing in February of 2021. My manager told me I’d been rated as a “low-performer” and that I was being put on a performance plan, called Focus. He said that there were certain areas where my performance was deficient and I needed to work on them. If I didn’t improve, then I would be at risk for termination. But some of the items for improvement were not on my radar at all. Like taking too long to document my work projects on our internal web pages. It was a total surprise to me and thought “What the fu- where did this come from? You’re threatening to terminate me over this?”

After I left, Seattle Times reported and Business Insider explained how some of these decisions are made. In January every year, there’s a complicated process that occurs, most details of which are deliberately hidden from employees. A director, who has about 150 people under them, has all their managers get together and rate all the employees on 3 metrics: the Potential Score, the Performance Score, and the Overall Value Score. It’s like the old Jack Welch GE model. Every person is put into five buckets, low to high, for the Overall Value score. There’s a forced distribution with 15% at the highest bucket and 5% at the lowest bucket. If there’s too many people in one bucket, people have to get knocked down to a lower one. I ended up in the lowest bucket.

Looking back, I think these WTF explanations from my manager were pretextual. He needs to put me onto a performance improvement plan – it’s automatic for anyone in the lowest bucket. He can’t tell me the real reason (the bucketing). Yet he still has to come up with reasons to explain why I’m going on the plan. He actually didn’t agree with me going onto a plan, then or now, but his hands were tied. But I think he had to come up with these arbitrary and WTF reasons to rationalize putting me on a plan.

At this point, you’ve got 30 days to turn things around with Focus. If you don’t, then you go onto a more stringent improvement plan, called Pivot. With Pivot, you are on a knife edge for termination. I figured “I’m a smart guy - I can power through this. I can bust my butt, get out of Focus and go back to normal.” But after the 30 days, my manager informed me that my director decided to put me onto Pivot.

There was zero visibility into how this decision got made. I asked HR to provide any records to shed light on the director’s thought process. I looked into the law. Section 49.12.240 of Washington law says that employees have a right to access their own ‘personnel files’. I said “I’m pretty sure you have to disclose these records. Performance evaluations should be part of the ‘personnel file’. The director’s assessment is clearly a performance evaluation.” HR said flat-out “No, we do not consider those records to be part of the personnel file.” I told HR that refusing disclosure was a potential compliance violation. But they didn’t seem to care. Their response was “We don’t normally like to give those out”. This would be a legal requirement! It doesn’t matter what Amazon wants to do.

That’s when I decided to resign. I did think about filing a lawsuit, but the law is ambiguous. What should be included within the personnel file is never defined. HR can arbitrarily re-label a document as ‘not the personnel file’ and avoid disclosure. I don’t think they broke the letter of the law, but I do think they are breaking the spirit of the law by refusing disclosure.

I’ve talked to four other ex-Amazon people, all from different business units. We all have the same story; being put on an improvement plan with little warning and for seemingly arbitrary reasons. My case is not a one-off, it’s a systemic problem. They are intentionally keeping people in the dark about their evaluation system. Amazon is the largest employer in the state, and they are skirting labor law with their personnel file policy; they are exploiting a loophole to keep their performance review system hidden.

Transparency is critical for workers for a couple of reasons. First, their policy defies professional best practice. Managers need to provide actionable feedback when their employees are falling short. But they are deliberately hiding key parts of the evaluation and preventing any feedback mechanism. It’s also just illogical - managers are saying “hey, you need to improve, but we’re not going to tell you how exactly we determine unsatisfactory performance.” Second, they are not acting with integrity toward their employees. They have this complicated system to force people to resign. Based on Seattle Times reporting, I don’t think the improvement plans are really about performance. They have this system called URA, or unregretted attrition. It’s letting go workers on a performance plan without regrets. The company wants to force out 6% of the corporate workforce every year through terminations or resignations. They don’t tell this to anyone outside of management. I remember thinking “Really, this would have been good to know!” When you deliberately conceal key pieces of information, like the URA or the OV scores, that’s not respecting employees. You undermine the dignity of the individual worker by not being forthright with them.

After resigning, I went to my state rep and asked if we could work on legislation to close this loophole. My rep sent me to Patty Kuderer, a state senator that was already working on legislation addressing deficiencies in the current statute. The draft bill is “concerning employee’s rights concerning personnel files and disciplinary actions.” This isn’t an anti-Amazon bill. In my case, it has particular salience with them, but the problems in the current statute extend beyond Amazon; the bill affects all employers in the state, with blue collar and precarious workers and white collar and privileged workers, in and outside of tech. It says any performance evaluation has to be disclosed and, crucially, the company can’t re-label something to escape disclosure. If an employer doesn’t disclose the records, then you can sue for monetary damages and also compel disclosure. That’s the difference transparency makes.

Right now, the bill has been introduced. And as soon as I read it, I said “I have to do everything I can do to help it pass.” We can’t count on Amazon to obey the spirit of the law. They’re only going to do the bare minimum to comply with the letter of the law. But it still requires passage in the House and the Senate. Legislators told me we have a strong case showing why we need to close loopholes, and that it’s important to get testimonies from individual workers. I agree we need workers to tell their story as to why the current law is insufficient and how this bill would benefit them. But as one worker, I didn’t have much sway, and I received a few noncommittal responses.

So, as a mechanism to get more leverage for ongoing organizing, I started circulating a petition. The petition can show legislators that there is grassroots demand. I have talked to over a dozen former Amazon colleagues already, and two ex-Amazonians are wanting to participate. We agree that performance reviews are opaque and a gross power imbalance.

I didn’t know any of this a year ago. Maybe I was naive. But I want other workers to know the kinds of rights and protections they have in the workplace. Workers can sign the petition, write legislators asking for their support, and get organized to help enforce the law or push the law further. The legislative session starts January 10th. Things will heat up after that.

Thank you to Sunny R, Danny S, and the TWC crew for the opportunity to tell my story and for their encouraging support along the way. If you want to get involved with a small but growing collective, sign the petition in support of transparency legislation. You can also contact me at patmcgah-at-gmail.