The dark side of employer branding and the pursuit of happiness


I was sad to read about the unexpected passing of the 46-years old Mr. Tony Hseih. He is known as the extraordinary, admirable and successful CEO of the Las Vegas-based online shoe retailer Zappos, acquired by Amazon in 2009. Mr. Hseih's death happened just a couple of months after his retirement from the job. Among many other things in 2020, I thought it is so unfair. Alanis Morissette’s famous song popped in my ears: “Isn’t it ironic?”. The reports of Mr. Hseih passing were vague and mentioned a fire in his house. I did not think twice about the circumstances. To me Mr. Hseih is the example from the business cases, taught in business schools as a best practice for building a legendary company. Client obsession and focus on employees happiness were not just words, but a real life story in his organisation. Mr. Hseih’s book “Delivering happiness: A path to profits, passion and purpose” is regarded as a roadmap for CEOs, communications professionals, HRs and many more. And so I decided to remember Mr. Hseih with his simple, yet powerful credo: Happiness is really just about four things: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness (number and depth of your relationships), and vision/meaning (being part of something bigger than yourself).” And like every simple thing, the devil is in the details...


Several days after Mr. Hseih's tragic incident, new reports started to surface, mentioning cult-like organisational culture and sadly, drugs. In their cover story, the American Forbes throws light on some disturbing details: Tony Hsieh’s American Tragedy: The Self-Destructive Last Months Of The Zappos Visionary. At the same time an article from 2010 describes vividly (and very positively) the cult. It talks about a team of people who are totally devoted to increase customer happiness and Net Promoters Score, people who believe 100%, who breathe and live with the organisational culture and values. At Zappos, new employees were not even tempted by the 2000 dollar walking-away prize offered to them to leave the company after the initial week of training. Feels like a dream…And probably it was, for some people, for some time.

Balance


Mr. Hseih was obsessed with happiness, say the reports. The same reports, who use words like “obsessed”, “cult”, “drugs”… The words could be random and unrelated, I don’t want to imply assumptions. I only aim to take some learnings from this story, hoping to give focus to one of the hardest things to achieve – both individually and in any organization - balance.


The reason balance is important is because extremes rarely work in the long-term. As Simon Sinek eloquently puts in his new book “The Infinity Game” – as people and as organisation our goal is to be sustainable, to continue existing and thriving for as long as possible. In my humble view, this longevity is a result of balancing – between work and life, between global and local, between striving for top employee engagement and giving your people room to side-hustle and be passionate about things outside work too.

Success theatre

As much as I subscribe to Mr. Hseih’s definition of happiness, there is one (repeated) word in it that caught my attention only after I read the follow-up stories of his passing. And it is the word “perceived”. Perceived implies that something may not be entirely true, but could be presented as such so that people feel it, perceive it, this way. It reminded me of the stories in Wall Street Journal and in The Economist about the downfall of another legendary company – General Electric. “How Jeffrey Immelt’s ‘Success Theater’ Masked the Rot at GE - a culture that disdained bad news contributed to overoptimistic forecasts and botched strategies”.Mr. Immelt was CEO of GE from 2000 to 2017, succeeding no other than Jack Welch. Mr. Immelt is known for his impeccable presentation skills and media has perceived GE as a very successful company. Until it became clear it was not. We do not need to absolutise and blame it just on the great presentation skills and on Mr. Immelt. The moral of the story is to keep our eyes open – to celebrate the successes, but also to be ready to face the facts on what we need to work on in order to always improve.

And when it comes to employee engagement, the managers, the communications and HR teams need to work on pulling people towards the common vision and artefacts, rather than pushing them to a cult like culture. Not because it is not good, but because it is less likely to be sustainable for the long run.


As always, the best engagement comes when the talk is walked, when the leaders are the role models and when they act upon the credo: be the company you want it to be. Balance and happiness will follow naturally.