Lessons from Amazon's Warehouse Game Promo: Reward Employees, Allow them to Choose their Gift, But Don't Get OSHA Involved
In 2021, in the midst of a world still reeling from pandemic shutdowns and, therefore, an unprecedented hike in demand for products ordered online, Amazon ramped up its video-game-like incentive program for its warehouse employees to keep up the pace by "gamifying" their work.
It started in 2019, when Amazon literally turned tasks into retro-style games with cute little names like "PicksInSpace," "Dragon Duel," and "MissionRacer." Their prize? Employees who landed on the leaderboard earned "swag bucks" that could be spent on branded Amazon merchandise like T-shirts and other promotional products.
My new gear I bought with my 75 Swag Bucks I earned at Amazon Ric 1 Fulfillment Center @amazon pic.twitter.com/V9TtKK2o7a
— L.D.B. (@IAMQuanByrd) December 23, 2022
In 2021, Amazon employees felt that branded merchandise wasn't enough of a reward for the work they were putting in, although company stores and branded merchandise often serve as an effective appreciation gift.
"You want to feel good about your workplace," one employee at an Alabama facility said at the time. "You want to feel like you're appreciated. But it's not like that here."
Now, nearly two years later, the program is still alive, and branded merchandise is still the prize, but the Department of Labor is saying that the gamified work environment could create a potentially dangerous work environment.
Per Business Insider, OSHA found that the games in New York warehouses incentivized workers to prioritize speed over safety in an environment that regularly required lifting items heavier than 25 lbs. When they are working too fast with heavy items, it creates a real risk of injury.
OSHA also found that the way some job-games were structured caused employees to "awkwardly [twist], [bend] and [extend] themselves to lift items."
For the three warehouses it reported finding dangerous practices, OSHA said it would seek fines of $46,875.
"Amazon's operating methods are creating hazardous work conditions and processes, leading to serious worker injuries," said Doug Parker, assistant secretary for OSHA, in a statement to Business Insider. "They need to take these injuries seriously and implement a company-wide strategy to protect their employees from these well-known and preventable hazards."
This highlights a couple of things: The first is that if people are working this hard for the hopes of earning swag bucks, there's an obvious appeal for a branded product. But, it's not that simple. Earning something like a T-shirt or water bottle shouldn't come at the expense of long-term physical health or overly long work days.
It also shouldn't be the only reward, especially when the work is as physically demanding as Amazon's. Distributors working with customers looking to implement a workplace reward program should educate them on how promotional products fit into the larger plan, rather than as the only part.
Companies that implement rewards programs should do so with realistic goals that reward realistic workplace success and milestones.
We've seen instances where branded merchandise is so popular that people will pretend to work at a place to get it.
In some ways, Amazon should not be the model for how a business operates. This won't shock anyone in this industry to hear. But, this program also shows the appeal for a promotional campaign that allows the end-user to select what they want, rather than receive something picked out by someone else.
That's why programs that allow an end-user to go on a website and pick out a branded gift for themselves usually ends up with the recipient holding onto the product for longer. It was exactly what they want, so they will keep it for a longer period of time.
Again, it's crucial to note that this gift shouldn't be the reward for hurting themselves on the job. This is where Amazon deviates from an effective promotional campaign into a promotional campaign where OSHA gets involved.
Brendan Menapace is the senior digital editor for Promo Marketing. While writing and editing stories come naturally to him, writing his own bio does not.