HR Musical Monday – Is Zappos a Workplace Camelot?

The HRi has always enjoyed theatre, and can’t watch a stage play or movie without thinking about the HR issues presented. It’s a curse.

Sometimes we use the word “legendary” to mean that a person, place, or event was of substantial interest to history that they will never be forgotten. Some legends are fictional, or at least unsubstantiated, but their intricacies and possibilities draw us in. So it is with King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and Camelot.

The American play Camelot was written in the late 1950’s, and first opened in 1960. Like many productions, the first staged version is not the one you would see today. It takes many audiences and previews to get a production to work as well as the one eventually staged on Broadway. A Lerner and Loewe musical, it featured Richard Burton as Arthur, Julie Andrews as Guenevere, and Robert Goulet as Lancelot. Camelot was a place of magic, a place where the crown even decreed the climate: “The winter is forbidden til December, and exits March the second on the dot, by order summer lingers through September, in Camelot!”

Having been involved in a couple of start-up organizations in my career, I know that the leaders envisioned a workplace that everyone would love and, more importantly, be inspired to do their best work. “Employer of Choice” doesn’t even say it, their aspiration was to create a legendary workplace. Zappos seems to aspire to the level of  legendary employer, and recently the HR Happy Hour featured guest was Zappos Cruise Ship Captain Jamie Naughton.  Steve Boese did a great job handling the interview as the Twitter stream fired multiple questions and challenges.

Zappos has legendary customer service, and by many accounts, is a great employer. Jamie’s handling of the questions showed what I believe the major reason they continue to be successful – a core team of leaders who have stayed with the mission of what they set out to do. It appears they are principle-centered, not policy-centered. Their business processes are people-centric, and recognizing that we are not all the same, they recruit for people who fit their style, are willing to adapt to their culture, and even offer new hires a financial incentive to quit early on. I think this is a great practice, especially if you have confidence in your selection process, and yet a recognition that it might not be perfect.

In the musical version of the legend of Camelot, the king’s illegitimate son Mordred works to end Arthur’s reign, and Lancelot’s romance with Guenevere add to the problems that indicate Camelot may not survive. At the end of the show Arthur knights a young man and asks him to keep Camelot – the idea – alive.

Zappos has seen tremendous growth and ownership changes, but the king, his round table and his knights have held the values strong. I hope that they become the type of legend that isn’t remembered fondly, but looked on for examples for a long time to come.

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