Friday, June 4, 2021

Part One - Why I chose to retire

The age at which workers retire has changed greatly over the last twenty years.  Manual workers are expected to retire as their physical strength and energy ebbs. Those who use mental energy and strength acquire a greater value to their profession with the experience and judgement of their years. Typically judges, consultants and leaders of industry continue working until they feel they have no more to offer.

Many people look forward to retirement. The gold watch and gratitude for their service; the leaving party when the retiree is lauded for their achievements. Overall, a happy event.

My retirement was a vastly different story.  While I received many heart warming emails from colleagues and my direct reports held a virtual 'party' to bid me farewell. Leadership ignored my departure. I worked for Amazon as a Quality Assurance Manager. I had developed a well-knit team who performed to the high standards required by Amazon. Together we had chalked up many innovations and successes. No one had ever complained about our productivity. On the contrary we received many accolades.

In late November 2020 my then manager told me he was moving to another team. He then told me that the plan would be for me to report to one of the Software Development Managers (SDM) in our group (let's call her Anna). I told him that if that were to happen I would leave. He already knew that there had been problems between Anna and my team  He said it had not been his choice but he would get back to me.

The following day the other senior manager (we will refer to her as Kate) in the org set up a meeting with me; she would be taking over from my manager and I got the impression that she made the decision that I would report to Anna, who in turn would be reporting to her; I was the only one of four managers on the team not reporting directly to Kate, despite the fact that all of the managers in the group were at the same corporate level and I had been with Amazon longer than any of the other managers. Kate's direct reports would be reporting up to the director (we will call him John) during her upcoming absence. I suggested that I could report to Gerry (not his real name), an SDM who is based locally and is on the same team, while Anna is in Seattle WA. But more important to me was the fact that Gerry had experience managing QA teams and was a reasonable person. I felt that this was a logical solution for everyone. Kate said she would talk to John and get back to me. 

Without any consultation with me or indeed with my team, we were being presented with a new manager. That in itself would not be a problem, but the person chosen, Anna, had only recently moved into a management role with little knowledge or understanding of the area in which we worked. Although she was relatively new to people management, my team and I had clashed with her in her previous role as a project manager and knew her to be a micro manager with a combative approach. Her lack of experience appears to make her aggressive in her approach and she tends to treat those reporting to her as beneath her and attempts to impose her will by shouting down any effort to discuss and ‘pulling rank’. I knew this would be a mistake as we had an integrated happy team and this boded nothing but disaster for the continued success of the group. Naturally I approached leadership to make them aware of the issues. I found myself stonewalled and it appeared that this was a reorganization made with an agenda which was not clear and was obviously not going to be shared with me.

When Anna started managing QA the level of bullying was even worse than I had imagined. I was harassed at every turn, my methods were criticized, my management of my team was undermined by her. She wanted me to implement processes that were archaic. When I explained that these had been tried and discarded as not of value, she went to one of my direct reports and instructed him to put the process in place. 

Due to the pandemic, we were all working from home and, to help team morale, we were allowed a budget to have monthly virtual social gatherings, it was also made very clear that attendance was optional. QA Engineers are generally speaking, introverted and we had all agreed we really didn’t want to get involved in these. She told me that I had to hold monthly social gatherings for my team, when I told her that we didn’t have any interest in doing so, she insisted and said it was mandatory, she then went to one of my direct reports and insisted that he implement these. These are just a few examples, there were many more.

I believe that bullying in any situation, school, work or home should be called out and not allowed to continue. I went through the few channels available to me to attempt to solve the problem. As I saw it, having me report to another manager in the same department should not have been that difficult, the solution was obvious; change the reporting line to a manager located in the same time zone and who had relevant experience. I don't blame Amazon entirely for this poor human relations and management decision. Amazon is a huge company and while they have some very laudable leadership principles to which they pay homage and claim to hold every 'Amazonian' responsible for upholding, in reality many of the executives have their own interpretation of these principles, and when it comes down to it, they do pretty much what they want with very little repercussion, as I discovered.

During a 1:1 with Anna she told me that I was mismanaging my team and she would have to study what I was doing wrong and correct it. This went against all management principles reducing the operation of the team to that of a school yard battle. I emailed HR and said that I was not at all happy with the restructuring. This is what I sent to HR:

Over the past year the relationship between the development team in Seattle and QA has deteriorated, in part because of [Anna's] attitude to the QA group. In particular I have had both [Anna] and my direct reports coming to me complaining about the other. The QA team has lost trust in [Anna] and I believe that she not only does not understand the QA function, she does not respect our group. On more than one occasion I brought this up to [my manager], so he was aware and I was surprised at the decision considering this.

Some examples:

  • She has accused my QAEs of not reporting status and or blockers, when they have reported them she has just not read their emails, or has missed attending meetings.
  • She has set launch dates for projects without getting QA input into how long we would need to test, taking into account resources and other commitments and then pushed for QA to meet these dates
  • As a result of these unreasonable deadlines, the entire QA group has been working close to 60 hours per week for a number of months
  • She has invited my direct reports to meetings without including me and tried to bully them into agreeing to bypass QA processes to achieve her goals
  • At [my departing manager's] staff meetings I have tried to discuss issues between development and QA and how to best fix these, she has blamed QAEs by name where the only issue is a broken process and she has not been prepared to work with me to fix that process
  • At monthly talent discussions [Anna] has claimed that none of her developers are below the bar and instead tried to down level QAEs. Currently I do not have any direct reports who are not raising the bar.  
  • I would hate to lose any of my QAEs but with [Anna] as their skip level I fear that will happen as they have shared with me that they cannot work for her, and I fear that she will LE* them in order to protect her developers.
  • Despite expressing my concerns to both [my departing manager] and [his replacement], who spoke with [director] about it, he is not prepared to reconsider and has not even reached out to me to discuss this.  

As a result, I am now looking for other opportunities within Amazon and want to be sure that you are aware of my concerns, and those of my group, going forward.

*LE: Least Effective and next step is being managed out

The  next day the director John, set up a meeting with me. He appeared to be very concerned and claimed to be unaware of the situation; he assured me that nothing was carved in stone and suggested that I give it a month and come back to him after which time, if I was still not happy with the situation, he would rethink it. He also said something that I found curious; he said that he believed that the friction between Anna and my team could be resolved by putting her in charge, he felt that she would be obliged to be ‘nicer’ to us if she was managing us.

The only way I managed to get through that month was because it was December and we had a few days off over Christmas and the New Year. The rest of the time Anna not only harassed me, setting up meetings two or three times a week, but she also had meetings with my direct reports assigning tasks to them and basically taking over the management of the QA team and attempting to undermine me.

Once that month was over I requested another meeting with John. I was confident that he would keep his word and deal with this unbearable situation. To my surprise he said no, things would remain as they are and I would just have to make the best of it. That was totally unexpected, and left me reeling. I was very stressed out by the constant bullying sessions with Anna and already one of my engineers had given notice. I was very happy for him because he was one of the people that Anna had taken a dislike to and I knew his job would not be safe with her in control.

The decision had been made with little or no regard for how it would impact me or my team. This clearly had been decided further up the management chain and was beginning to show the signs of favors done and people being placed for other than business reasons  It is clear  that my departing manager did indicate that it might not work, because he already knew that there was friction between my team and the inexperienced incoming manager, I began to think that I was being forced out. I had a hard time believing that at first, because I had never had any performance issues plus my team was very high performing, as I mentioned. Whilst John was not an effective leader he was personable if hierarchical. He tended to have little respect for those who were not on the management team. I made it very clear to him how unhappy I was, and I gave him examples of the bullying tactics being employed to try to force me to put in place processes that absolutely went against all of the QA principles I had ever learnt in my almost 30 years working in QA, he still refused to consider any change to the arrangement and even went so far as to claim that her behavior was perfectly acceptable.

After a few days looking at all my options I finally emailed HR again; this time I said that I believed I was being managed out and as I had never had any performance problems I could only imagine this was a case of age discrimination. I wasn't ready for the reaction - apparently 'age discrimination' is a big weapon but I had no intention of using it as such. Unfortunately, due to our 9 months of close association working on another HR issue not related to this discussion, our HR representative had to stay out of the situation, while I fully understood her position, it was disappointing because I had great faith in her ability to deal with the problem. I was assigned another HR partner and after a few meetings with her while the situation with Anna deteriorated rapidly, I finally emailed HR and copied my director saying that as the situation was becoming intolerable and they were unwilling to fix it, I was considering retiring and when I made my final decision I would give them official notice. I also told my team the same thing, I had talked about retiring perhaps in about two years, and had started grooming my senior engineer to be ready to take over managing the team but I wanted to let them know that this might be sooner than expected. To be clear, I did check with HR first to see if I could be fired for sending out an early warning of my intention to retire sometime in the coming months; possibly May. I was told absolutely not.

The reaction to this email confirmed in my mind that they were deliberately trying to get rid of me. The first thing that happened was yet another meeting with Anna, where she made a big fuss about the fact that I had not told her I was retiring. I told her that I had no definite plans and once I decided I would let her know. She said that my senior engineer had told her, which was unfortunate, but I had not told the team it was confidential and so could really not fault him. The next thing that happened was John set up a meeting with me. I was so relieved, thinking that finally he was going to make this horrible situation right. Not true, he was clearly annoyed and said that Anna had complained to him that I had not told her I was planning to retire. I pointed out to him that as I had stated in the email I had made no firm decision and would of course tell her when I decided. That was not good enough for him. He suggested that as I was planning to retire, I should go ahead and step down from managing the team; my senior engineer would take over the management and report directly to Anna and I would in turn report to my engineer and of course I could retain the title of manager. This 'solution' sounded very strange to me, because at that point I had not officially resigned nor set a definite date for retirement but here I was being shoveled out the door, while I was not being fired, I was definitely on the exit ramp now. I told John that I would talk to my senior engineer and see if this arrangement would work for him.

The following week I met up with John a final time and told him that my engineer was prepared to take on the management of the team and that I would report to him. I said it was very clear to me that he was trying to manage me out and I could only assume this was age discrimination. At that point, he clearly got very angry, bear in mind all of these meetings were virtual, due to the fact that I was in Texas and all of these people were in Washington State, but on my screen I saw him straighten up suddenly and the anger was clearly displayed on his pudgy face, he said in a loud voice "I will have to report to HR that you said that ... !" almost immediately he slumped back into his usual toad like position and said "... and that is not a threat" I was confused by that last statement because I didn't see it as a threat, unless he was referring to his sudden anger. I responded "I have already told HR".

This was the point where I gave up and decided that I would definitely retire and settled for the end of May as this was clearly what HR and leadership wanted and the situation with Anna was growing more intolerable. This would give me plenty of time to train my senior engineer and offload my own tasks, plus give the team time to adjust to the idea. I advised HR who requested that I write an email advising the org of my decision to retire, explain the weird reporting structure and they would review and approve the email before I sent it out. This I did, being as politically correct as I could manage. But still it was edited before I was approved to send it. This was the final version:

Hi All

 As some of you know, I have been thinking about retirement for some time now. Now has finally arrived and the fish are calling. [Senior Engineer] has agreed to take over the management of the QA Team, and I have agreed to remain until end May in order to ensure a smooth transition for him and for the team. So that [Senior Engineer]  may get exposed to all aspects of management while I am still here to help,  [Senior Engineer] will move into the role and report directly to [Anna]. [Senior Engineer]  and I will work on transitioning all of my tasks, and bringing him up to speed on being a  people manager at Amazon, I will report to [Senior Engineer] .

 On 31st May I will hang a sign on my virtual door “gone fishing”. Before I get out the rod and reel I will of course, send my farewell email with personal contact information should anyone want photos of the amazing bass that are currently waiting just feet away from my doorstep, in Lake Travis.

A week after the last meeting with John I was contacted by Employee Relations. Up to this point I actually believed that the Employee Relations Group existed for all employees and I was surprised that it took them so long to get involved. Turns out I was wrong, they are there for the leadership, upper management protection. My statement to John, and his report to HR. had stirred up Employee Relations and they were now interrogating me in order to protect John and not to put right any wrong done to me. I told the very nice guy of all the instances of bullying I had experienced, and that I had reported these to the director and to HR, and that John had originally promised to reconsider the situation but then reneged. He listened carefully, asked a lot of questions and at the end of an hour I felt grilled and exhausted.

For weeks I heard nothing more from HR nor from Employee Relations and I went ahead with my plan to retire. During those weeks I was contacted by a number of people in Amazon who had seen the change in the reporting structure for the QA team and were confused by a QA Manager reporting to a QA Engineer; their sympathy and support helped me to deal with what was a very stressful situation. I started preparing in earnest for my retirement. I have to admit it was a scary prospect. I had almost no understanding of Medicare, and I worried that our medical cover would either be inadequate or horrifically expensive. That was just one of the small items I worried about. So I did what I always do in times of stress, I googled, read and wrote. In writing I have always found relief, it is very therapeutic. I prepared my resignation email and my farewell email, and as the time grew closer, I read and reread these.

Then, just four weeks before I was due to retire I got an email from the Employee Relations guy working on behalf of the director. He set up a meeting with me for 4.30 that afternoon, late for me considering I start work at 4.30 a.m. but I wanted it over with. I was not in the least bit surprised when he told me that he had talked to the director and he had established that there had been no bullying and no age discrimination. In my mind's eye I saw him say to the director "did you treat her so badly because she is old?" and the director say "no!" and he said, "oh, ok then".  I mean, what else would he do? he had already told me he was working on behalf of the director, to be exact he told me that Employee Relations got involved because a Level 8 director was implicated - I was Level 6 therefore not so important.

I still question what was going on. I had observed that Anna suffered from low self esteem and my experience has been that many people find the only way to combat this is to try to bring those they see as competitors down. I guess that if she could 'manage' me into underperforming she would be happy but as I was not prepared to cooperate with this, she was able to manipulate John to give me no quarter. How she managed to have such influence is definitely outside the realm of this narrative - but I have to admit I am curious.

On May 14th I sent my resignation email to my 'manager' that is my senior engineer to whom I was now reporting, and I copied HR:

To whom it may concern

I wish to officially submit my notice of resignation effective 31st May. As the 31st is Memorial Day, my last day will be May 28th. 

I have worked at Amazon for almost 7 years and for nearly all of that time my experience has been a positive one in terms of work, professional development and interaction with colleagues.  Sadly my recent experience of bullying, harassment and undermining of my professional confidence has left me so wary of the company and organization that I regretfully turned down an offer from another team to manage their QA team. As [HR] was unable, or unwilling, to address the situation in which I had been placed, I believe I have no option but to leave Amazon.

I would like to thank [HR partner] for her continued support over the last few years. Most of all, I would like to express my gratitude to [senior engineer] for being prepared to step up and take over the management of the QA team and I wish him and the team every success

I received two separate responses to this email, one from HR the main message was "Thank you for the update. When you shared your concerns, we conducted a prompt and thorough investigation. ... The result of those investigations was that your concerns were not substantiated ...".  A slap in the face but no surprise there. The second was from the Employee Resource Center (ERC) (very different from the Employee Relations previously mentioned) giving a long list of actions required prior to my departure in order to clean up after myself; all pretty standard stuff, it included this bullet point:

"Complete the [internal application] Exit Interview questionnaire, which is available within seven days of your termination date. Your feedback is very valuable and can only be seen within HR, unless you indicate otherwise."

As I waited for that last week to end, I thought about what I was heading into, and what I was leaving behind. With three days left to departure I had still not received access to the questionnaire mentioned. I emailed the ERC to let them know and got a response to the effect that they would follow up. On my second last day I again requested an exit interview, again the response was unrelated to my request and I had to conclude that Amazon did not want my feedback recorded. Here is why an exit interview is considered important by the HR community. 

"Exit interviews are important because they offer a deeper look at your workplace culture, day-to-day processes, management solutions, and employee morale" - HRAcuity

Finally my last day arrived and it became apparent that I was being denied that final exit interview, perhaps they just didn't care to have a record of my side of things. On balance, the unknown next chapter of my life was way more appealing than that which was about to come to a close. I worried about leaving my high performing team to suffer at the hands of a manager who clearly did not understand the Leadership Principles, in particular “Earn Trust” which is described by Amazon as “Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.” Anna neither listens attentively nor is she vocally self-critical. Once she had responsibility for the QA Team, contrary to what John suggested, she did not start to treat us better, she became more authoritarian and disparaging. However, knowing what I know about this and other aspects of Amazon’s culture, I am glad to be turning my back on it. This is the end of a chapter, it is not the end of the whole story.

"You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should've behaved better". - Anne Lamott


 

2 comments:

  1. These things happen all the time. One should not make this a reason to retire.
    I have 0 YOE so maybe I'm wrong.

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  2. I'm completely astounded to read this, and although you've documented every detail very well, in my opinion it still doesn't quite add up. You know from your own experience as a manager that competentent, dedicated people are not that easy to come by and are worth their weight in gold. When you have them on your team you feel grateful for them. All your life you've been prized and held in the highest esteem by the people you worked with and the companies you worked for. You have the capacity to do the work of three people and you devour work. Your work is meticulous, impeccable and far beyond what the ordinary person can do. You are also a team player and great and integrating assorted people into a cohesive group. When it comes to work, everyone is under pressure and the priority is to get the job done, and to get it done well and as fast as possible. You soon get to appreciate people that in the normal way you'd have nothing in common with. Personality doesn't come into it. That's why none of this adds up for me. Was there something else at play? Was it not constructive dismissal? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructive_dismissal Was there collusion behind the scenes beween those involved? Could someone senior have thought 'let's get rid of this lady and replace her with someone who'll cost less'? But hardly. Competence would surely trump cost at Amazon. You mention 'Anna's' low self-esteem. In all my working life I've only ever seen that dynamic come into play twice: someone with low self-esteem using their position to try to reduce the stature of another to make themselves feel important. The only thing I can't think about this is how lucky that you are in a position that you didn't have to put up with it. It's important that you've taken the time to chronicle all of this. I hope it makes its way to senior levels at Amazon.

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