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Is Zappos’ Culture-Culture Fair?

By Melissa J. Anderson

Zappos is one of those companies that has nurtured its culture so carefully that its culture is about just that: culture-building. The company has a culture-culture. Founder CEO Tony Hsieh wrote in FastCompany last summer that the company’s success is based not on excellent product delivery, but on its culture. He said, “Zappos sells shoes and apparel online, but what distinguished us from our competitors was that we’d put our company culture above all else.”

The company paid big for healthcare, learning and development, and other perks, banking on the notion that great benefits would transfer into better service, more customers, and bigger sales. And it succeeded.

Hsieh continued:

“Some board members had always viewed our company culture as a pet project — ‘Tony’s social experiments,’ they called it. I disagreed. I believe that getting the culture right is the most important thing a company can do. …The board’s attitude was that my “social experiments” might make for good PR but that they didn’t move the overall business forward.”

Eventually, Hsieh sold the company to Amazon, out of fear that he would be replaced by the board, and that his replacement would destroy the culture he’d built. He said he felt Amazon would let Zappos continue to cultivate it’s own culture, and so far, he writes, he’s happy with the deal.

What is this culture Hsieh was willing to risk everything to protect? The first four of Zappos’ core values are:

  • Deliver WOW Through Service
  • Embrace and Drive Change
  • Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
  • Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

Additionally, the company pays unhappy employees $2,000 to quit. That’s a big payout to leave the company if you don’t fit in, and one can assume that the hiring process is fairly rigorous to match it. In a recent BusinessInsider article, Hsieh described the two part interview process, which involves first an interview with the manager or the team to ensure the potential hire has the necessary technical skills and a good personality match for the team dynamic.

Then there’s a second interview with HR solely to determine if the potential hire is a good fit for the company’s culture.

We’ve all heard of the dangers of corporate group-think, driven by white, male, Ivy-league MBAs. Does Zappos’ focus on hiring the perfect, culture-contributing employee produce a different sort of group-think? Is it fair to fire people (or not hire them) just because they’re a little different than your run of the mill wacky, weird, creative type?

The culture-culture might be terrific for building employee engagement, but does it keep new voices out?

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