Amazon Learns The Downside To Empowering Employees

This seems to be the week for large retailers to appreciate—and fear—the power of the employee and to know when to limit it. Domino's Pizza learned that lesson when two employees decided to do a little Web video and social networking on their own and Amazon learned it when a slice of its public database was rewritten courtesy of a one-keystroke error from one employee in France.

Amazon's problem was aggravated by the fact that the database change—whether intentionally or unintentionally—adversely impacted the placement of many books in Health, Mind & Body, Reproductive & Sexual Medicine and Erotica. From a PR standpoint, it specifically was seen as playing down books dealing with homosexual issues.

After a few days of silence, Amazon issued a statement, which began "This is an embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error for a company that prides itself on offering complete selection." (Editor's Note: A colleague, whose brain is in the gutter almost as frequently as mine, thought Amazon made a very poor choice of words. "On any issue dealing with a gay lifestyle uproar, you really want to avoid saying ham-fisted. It's not going to be a wise move.")

But the more important issue is how it happened. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer quoted one Amazon source confirming the lone French employee reports. "Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as 'adult,' the source said. Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true,'" the story reported. "It's no big policy change, just some field that's been around forever filled out incorrectly."

Amazon's statement confirmed that the glitch impacted Amazon worldwide. " It affected not just sales rank but also had the effect of removing the books from Amazon's main product search," wrote Drew Herdener, the Amazon communications director. "Many books have now been fixed and we're in the process of fixing the remainder as quickly as possible, and we intend to implement new measures to make this kind of accident less likely to occur in the future."

That's a good start, but how was it that one employee was able to make that change and have it populate globally? No supervisor had to approve? No software to check for a radical shift of titles? Not even a pair of employees checking each other's work?

These glitches happen and it's not any kind of indictment on Amazon's operations. Indeed, it's the generally brilliant sophistication of Amazon's procedures, technologies and policies that raises the issue here. Is it a matter of "If it can happen to Amazon, it can happen to anyone"?

Or is it more an issue of tech-loving Amazon getting too confident, trusting its systems and employees too much and placing insufficient safeguards? In the Domino's case, at least the employees were acting a bit renegade and maliciously. It's hard to prevent employees from doing dumb things. (With management, it's usually mandated.)

But in the Amazon case, the employee—based on all preliminary reports—did nothing more than a typo, but clicking a box the wrong way. That wasn't foreseeable? It's looking as though Amazon had gotten overconfident, putting inadequate safeguards in place. Let's see what those new measures look like, though, before we choose to—please forgive me—throw the book at them.

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