A 50-year-old ficus named Rubi. A rhododendron taxifolium from the Philippines, now extinct in the wild. The world’s second largest living wall.
I have come to Amazon’s urban campus in Seattle to meet Beth Galetti, the company’s senior VP of human resources. But instead of ushering me directly into a conference room, she offers me a guided tour of the Spheres, the three conjoined geodesic domes–containing 40,000 plants, inviting seating areas, and good coffee–that Amazon opened last year on a former parking lot in the Denny Triangle neighborhood.
Part botanical wonderland and part work space, the glass-encased Spheres are designed to let the thousands of Amazon staffers who toil in nearby buildings get away from it all without having to walk more than a few blocks from their desks. “We wanted to give our employees a place to experience nature,” explains Galetti, who is wearing a puffy winter jacket and floral scarf and is clearly having fun playing forest ranger. “When you’re in a typical office environment, the best you might get is a plant.”
The Spheres’ Edenesque splendor seems all the more striking after Galetti and I make the five-minute trek to the anodyne tower where she works. By the standards of enormous tech companies, her surroundings are willfully mundane, reflecting Amazon’s long-standing stance that it should be investing above all in delighting customers rather than its own creature comforts: “It sets the tone for our frugality,” she says. Her office is tiny–three visitors would constitute a crowd–and sports few accoutrements other than a standing desk and the requisite shelf of family photos. (In one, Galetti poses with her beaming dad during an Amazon “Bring Your Parents to Work” day.)
Like most–okay, all–HR executives, the 46-year-old Galetti isn’t exactly famous. But in her nearly six years at Amazon, three as a division leader, she has quietly become one of its most influential figures. Galetti is the highest-ranking woman at the company, and the only woman on the 18-person “S-Team” (short for “Senior Team”) that reports directly to founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. And she has presided over a hiring spree of historic proportions.
Amazon now has a global full- and part-time workforce of 647,000, which is 50% more people than Alphabet, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft combined. Among U.S. companies, only Walmart, with 2.3 million, employs more people, but Walmart’s total head count hasn’t budged significantly in years. By contrast, Amazon employs more than six times as many workers as it did when Galetti joined. It has been adding an average of 337 people a day and currently has 28,000 open positions.
The company grew into a behemoth slowly, then all at once.
But raw numbers, vast as they are, do not convey the scope of Galetti’s role at Amazon, a company that comprises everyone from computer scientists to movie producers to warehouse packers to Whole Foods grocers. It’s rare for a week to go by without one (or more) controversies burbling into the news about Amazon’s workplace practices—from investigations into its warehouse workers’ ability to take bathroom breaks to strikes at unionized facilities in Germany, Spain, and Poland, to the recent undoing of the company’s planned “HQ2” expansion in New York City, which it said would have created 25,000 new jobs. All stories like this connect back to Galetti.
Galetti, a tech veteran who had no HR experience prior to arriving at Amazon, says that her job is to make it easier for employees to do meaningful work. “I’m looking for ways to remove the barriers, fix the defects, and enable self-service,” she says. That goal has led to a hiring frenzy of its own: The company now has a startling 600 people working on internal software for purposes such as onboarding new recruits and conducting reviews, all of whom are part of Galetti’s HR department rather than some engineering group elsewhere in the organization.
Those who work closely with Galetti speak of the ambition, diligence, and inquisitive nature she brings to her efforts. Jeff Wilke, CEO of the company’s consumer business–including all of its online and offline retailing activities and Amazon Prime–manages the divisions that employ the majority of the company’s workforce. When Galetti “sees something that’s right, and that she thinks is going to work, she just gets it done,” he says. With Amazon showing no sign of slowing its drive to do virtually everything, and hiring the people necessary, her busiest–and most fraught–days may lie ahead.
Beth Galetti never aspired to be an HR person. Nor did Amazon set out to hire someone with an unconventional background to run its HR operations. That she wound up where she did is the result of synchronicity–and the company’s instinctive love of contrarian gambits.
A Baltimore native and daughter of an engineer and an investment banker, Galetti was a math prodigy who entered Lehigh University at age 16 and earned a degree in electrical engineering. After getting her MBA from Colorado Technical University, she joined FedEx and eventually wound up as a Brussels-based vice president with sweeping oversight of airline operations, engineering, and planning in Europe, the Middle East, India, and Africa.
Sixteen years into her FedEx career, Galetti began investigating the world beyond the shipping giant. “I quickly realized I didn’t have much of a network,” she says. “I didn’t know any people outside of FedEx, and so I started contacting old college roommates and professors and different people and ultimately connected with someone at Amazon.”
Her logistics experience appealed to Amazon, which was just beginning to ramp up efforts to deliver packages to customers itself rather than relying solely on third parties. “She had a really intriguing background, and we brought her in for exploratory conversations about maybe a role in ops that we hadn’t clearly defined yet,” says Susan Harker, then Amazon’s head of recruiting. But Harker was most impressed by how Galetti “just lit up like a Christmas tree when she talked about developing people. She had a passion for leading teams, for talent development.”
That led Harker to float the idea of an HR job, momentarily flummoxing Galetti. “I said, ‘Susan, I know you hire a lot of people at Amazon and I think you confused my résumé,'” she recalls. Harker sold her on the offer in part by including an insurance policy: At any time, if she concluded that HR was not for her, the company would find a slot for her elsewhere in the organization. Even a year into her tenure, Galetti says, she wasn’t 100% positive she’d never avail herself of this backup plan. (“Beth is not short on guts, but she is a calculated risk-taker,” notes Michael Foster, a colleague and friend from her FedEx days.)
Her first move was to immerse herself in the company’s unique culture. Even by the mantra-crazy standards of the tech industry, Amazon is devoted to its codified wisdom, which, according to Brad Stone’s book The Everything Store, originates from five core values established by Bezos and formalized in 1998: “customer obsession,” “frugality,” “bias for action,” “ownership,” and “high bar for talent.” A sixth, “innovation,” came later, Stone wrote. Over the years, that list has expanded. Amazon has 14 Leadership Principles (“Leaders are right a lot”), and 10 Peculiar Ways (“We use specificity when possible and sensible”). Amazon’s love of describing itself as “peculiar” even gave a name to its mascot, Peccy, a blobby orange critter whose grin is the arrow from the company’s logo. The HR group also has its own mission and tenets. (“We build a workplace for Amazonians to invent on behalf of the customer.”)
Galetti acknowledges that all this may sound overwhelming to the uninitiated. “Who the heck remembers 14 Leadership Principles?” she laughs. “I have two children, and I’m sometimes hard-pressed to get both of their names straight.” But she has clearly taken Amazon’s dogma to heart. As we talk, she frequently calls my attention to a handy laminated copy of those principles, using a finger to underline key phrases such as “think big” and “dive deep.”
Any good HR department tries to help a company live its values. Galetti’s background allows her to see technology as a way to achieve this goal at Amazonian scale. “If we’re going to hire tens of thousands–or now hundreds of thousands–of people a year, we can’t afford to live by manual processes and manual transactions,” she says.
Darcie Henry, VP of Amazon HR’s worldwide operations, has worked in Amazon’s HR group since 1998, when the company had a couple thousand employees. She says that when Galetti was given the top HR job, in 2016, after Galetti’s boss, Tony Galbato, retired, “it was the first time that the investment [of money and resources] completely flipped toward ensuring that we are building out our HR technology team.” Amazon reassigned the developers working on HR software to Galetti’s group—a logical step given her software-engineering experience–and ramped up hiring for the team even further.
Longtime Amazon engineer Alfonso Palacios now oversees this 600-person brigade. Galetti, he says, “is the primary reason why I came on board. She holds her team to high standards, as she should.” After Palacios gave Galetti his first yearly plan for his group, she asked for supporting documents from other staffers–and then marked them up with 150 questions. “She wasn’t micromanaging, she was genuinely curious,” he hastens to clarify.
One product his team built, called Connections, asks every Amazon employee to answer a workplace-related question in the morning, giving the company an atomized version of the feedback it otherwise might have to wait until an annual employee survey to learn. Another, Forte, is a performance-review system that Galetti describes as being “built with the premise that what makes people successful here are their strengths, not the absence of weaknesses.” (Amazon has drawn heat in the past for performance reviews that accentuated the negative.)
These offerings aspire to the sort of consumer-level polish that Amazon is famous for but that is rarely associated with HR software. “We don’t develop tools,” says Galetti firmly. “We don’t develop systems. We develop products.” Despite the fact that nobody outside of the company will ever use these particular products, she talks about them as if she were responsible for a new Kindle.
“Welcome Amazonians. It’s still day one! are you ready to make a difference?”
The greeting/exhortation, referencing Jeff Bezos’s oft-expressed insistence that Amazon is always on “day one” of its journey, is emblazoned on a small sign outside BFI4, an Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Washington. (Like most of the 75 such facilities in North America, it’s named after the code for a nearby airport–in this case, Boeing Field.)
BFI4 is 17 miles from the Spheres in Seattle, but in some ways the 812,000-square-foot warehouse feels like it’s in a different universe. The towering security turnstiles at the entrance, intended to stop employees from walking off with Amazon property, unquestionably mean business (warnings on the turnstile bars read stop and go slow), and posted instructions advise workers to leave items such as phones, keys, coins, and chewing gum in their lockers to reduce screening time. (Amazon currently has 101 openings in its Fulfillment Loss Prevention group, which is responsible for discouraging pilfering by workers.) There’s a sprawling break room but no cafeteria; dining options include making yourself a free peanut butter sandwich, paying for microwavables such as Dinty Moore stew, or bringing lunch from home.
When I visit, Christmas is a week away, and BFI4 is in the final stretch of its busiest season, known to employees as “Peak.” One young woman, dressed in a festive shirt with a sparkly reindeer on the front, politely answers my questions and demos a networked game that lets her and another worker elsewhere in the building–depicted as racing dragons–compete to fulfill orders. But as robotic transporters steer mobile shelves full of products to her station, she never stops plucking items for packing: Post-it Notes, Vermont-themed socks, a Barbie on a tractor.
I am being escorted around by an Amazon PR manager, so it’s not surprising that the workers I chat with are upbeat about their experience in the facility. However, grumbling is evident in Voice of Associate (VOA), a series of whiteboards along the main drag through the warehouse. VOA allows employees to sound off about anything that’s on their mind, in a spot where coworkers will see it and managers can respond. On the day when I skim the boards, the gripes do not involve existential crises. One snarks about the incessant holiday music being piped over loudspeakers, for example, while another laments the quality of the building’s Wi-Fi. (There are also some positive sentiments, including someone praising the same holiday music.)
VOA complaints, Galetti says, can filter from a fulfillment-center whiteboard back to her in Seattle, as happened when a number of workers expressed frustration with a new third-party benefit provider. Alarmed, she used Connections to survey Amazonians company-wide; a worrisome 40% of respondents gave the provider a thumbs-down, leading HR to clarify the wording of its benefit information. “It was an immediate way to bridge what we were assuming was happening and what the front line was experiencing,” she says.
The goal of such efforts is to use big data and real-time technology to move at Amazon speed rather than the more plodding pace you might associate with a big-company HR department. “Some organizations do an organizational health check every six months or every two years,” says Kathleen Carroll, Amazon’s director of global talent acquisition. “Whereas Beth has built the Connections organization to be a constant learning platform that really gives voice and advocacy where it’s needed most.”
It doesn’t always feel so seamless in the field. John Burgett, who worked in multiple “tier one” capacities at an Amazon fulfillment center in Indiana from 2014 to 2018 (though Amazon would not confirm this), maintained an online log of the Connections questions that popped up on his screen, which he says ranged from dead serious (“Is your manager mindful for cultural differences?”) to hilariously fluffy (“Do you know what makes Amazon so amazing?”). He dismisses Connections and VOA as “the illusion of some kind of interaction between employee and employer . . . but I’ve found that employees have very little agency there.”
Amazon has grappled for so long with its reputation for being an unpleasant workplace—whether you’re in a warehouse or at a desk—that one might conclude that these issues are a result of its unique culture rather than a violation of it. “It is an extremely difficult place to work, from the people that start out at customer service answering the phones to some of the top people at the organization,” says Richard L. Brandt, the author of One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com.
A 1999 investigation by The Washington Post–almost 14 years before it was acquired by Jeff Bezos–depicted the Amazon environment as high-speed and high-stress, spurring some employees to pursue an ill-fated unionization effort. Sixteen years later, the New York Times published a 6,000-word story painting a cutthroat portrait of life at Amazon, declaring that the company “uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data, and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.”
In a Medium post (“What the New York Times Didn’t Tell You”) by its corporate affairs chief Jay Carney, Amazon emphatically disputed the Times’s conclusions. Even as described by its own executives, though, the company’s workplace retains a survival-of-the-fittest element. Galetti doesn’t maintain that every day at Amazon is a walk in the, well, Spheres: “We absolutely are proud that it’s hard work here.”
Fourteen years after leaving Amazon, Mike Sha, who helped hatch Amazon Prime and is now CEO of online-investing platform SigFig, can still cheerfully rattle off key Leadership Principles from memory. “It was a hard place to work, in a positive way,” he says. But are the company’s lofty tenets a better fit for a well-paid product manager or software engineer than for someone sorting items in a warehouse for an hourly rate? Consumer CEO Wilke doesn’t think so: “We want everybody to invent, to be customer obsessed, to be an owner.” He also points to the high rates of applicants for all kinds of jobs at the company as evidence that its culture appeals to many people, while acknowledging that Amazon “isn’t an environment for everybody.”
Still, when judging satisfaction among Amazon’s hourly workers, “the key [metric] is turnover,” argues ex-employee Burgett. “And Amazon, to my knowledge, has never and will never acknowledge what their turnover rate is.” (Indeed, the company refused to provide such retention figures for this article.) Burgett himself became part of turnover when he decided to take advantage of “the offer,” an Amazon policy which offers cash payments to employees who decide to leave, on the grounds that it’s best to part ways with people who aren’t dedicated Amazonians.
Amazon is clearly making some moves to better the lot of its lowest-paid employees. Galetti stresses that the company isn’t blind to its own flaws, even if it takes issue with some of its critics. “We don’t react and change things based on negative stories,” she says, but “on what we learn from our employees. . . . We go and seek the truth.”
Last October, the company announced that it was instituting a $15 minimum wage for hourly workers. Less than a month earlier, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders had introduced the Stop BEZOS Act, a proposed law that would make large companies pay 100% of the cost of federal assistance received by their employees. (Officially, “Stop BEZOS” stood for “Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies.”) Amazon disputed the figures Sanders quoted relating to its workers, and maintains that its decision had nothing to do with the proposed legislation.
“Any time any company is raising wages, that’s a good thing,” says Dave Mertz, New York director of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, who fought the company’s effort to open an additional headquarters in Queens, New York. However, he cautions, “You have to look at the totality of what it is to actually be an employee of Amazon. It’s about conditions. It’s about treating people with respect.”
The new $15 baseline will help the company recruit workers in a tight market, and will likely compel other big employers of lowwage workers to match that figure to stay competitive. The company now advocates for a change in federal law that would raise the minimum wage to $15 from the current $7.25: “We recognized that this was an area that we wanted to lead in,” says Galetti.
Meanwhile, the company is also helping its minimum-wage employees diversify their skill set. Sixteen thousand hourly workers have taken advantage of Career Choice, a training program with classrooms right inside dozens of the company’s fulfillment centers, as well as online courses. Instituted shortly before Galetti arrived at Amazon, it has been one of her priorities. Amazon pays 95% of the cost of these vocational- and technical-school-led courses in growing fields such as healthcare and transportation, even if it means eventually losing the employee to a career outside the company.
Another Galetti project could have even more long-term impact. Last year, Amazon established a nonprofit joint venture with Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase to investigate ways that the three companies–and maybe, eventually, American business as a whole–can offer better healthcare at lower costs. Galetti is Amazon’s representative in this initiative, called Haven, which hasn’t made much in the way of news yet other than naming as its CEO the distinguished surgeon and writer Atul Gawande. He describes Galetti as “wicked smart” and lauds Amazon for its fresh approach to an age-old challenge: “They understand the importance of creating an independent organization that employees can trust is focused solely on their health outcomes, experience, and costs, without profit-making incentives and restraints.”
If Amazon can improve healthcare in the U.S., it can do anything. But Galetti is careful not to let ambition give way to hubris. Her favorite aphorism from the 14 Leadership Principles is a pungently worded admonishment to stay humble: “Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume.” Even after nearly six years, she says, “I am not an expert on HR. I am not an expert on Amazon.”
We wind up our conversation, and she gives me my own take-home copy of the 14 principles. On the way to her office (which is windowless, since Amazon believes that views should be shared), she grabs an Amazon-branded bag of plantain chips from a stash of snacks. Handing them to me, she tells me that they’re particularly tasty. Somewhere on this campus is a product manager responsible for that.