Delivering HR at Zappos

Keeping employees happy at takes a little weirdness and a willingness to make work fun.

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 1, 2011
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You may not expect a woman whose footwear of choice is tennis shoes to work at one of the world’s largest online shoe companies, but for senior HR manager Hollie Delaney, PHR, Inc. is a comfy fit.

Staff members in six HR functions report to Delaney at this intense, high-energy company where a worker might spring onto a table during a meeting and perform an impromptu break dance, and the computer log-on requires identifying the photo of a randomly selected employee.

Conference rooms at corporate headquarters in Henderson, Nev., are named after casinos in a nod to the famed Strip 6.7 miles away. In fact, the company plans to relocate to downtown Las Vegas sometime in 2012 or 2013.

Job applicants at the 24/7 operation are interviewed in a room resembling a talk show set, and employees have been asked to submit creative ideas in various scenarios such as coming up with their own designs for Steve Madden creations. During annual Bald & Blue Day, CEO Tony Hsieh and other employees volunteer to have co-workers shave their heads or dye their hair blue.

HR Magazine talked to Delaney about her career and how Zappos delivers happiness to its customers—and its 3,000 employees.

Before Zappos, you worked in HR at a casino. What was that like?

It was big and impersonal, with thousands of employees and so many rules between unions and nonunions. There was a rule for everything—even that I had to wear pantyhose if I worked in HR. It made it difficult to be yourself. At the time, I thought HR was not for me.

Describe your Zappos job interview.

During the phone interview, I described myself as “fun but a little weird.” The interviewer said “Wow, that’s one of our core values.” I met everyone in HR and interviewed with 10 managers, including Tony. He was sitting in a cubicle alongside other employees; I didn’t know he was the CEO at first. I started crying while telling him about my “miracle baby” and thought I’d blown the job interview.

During onboarding, Zappos offers new hires $3,000 to leave if they don’t think they and the company are a good fit. Were you tempted?

It was $1,000 when I started, but no. Everybody here was so happy. They were so invested in this company. You could see it, and you could feel it. I was floored. I was skeptical, but I knew there had to be something special here for people to behave that way.

How can you tell if a candidate is a good fit?

When people tour our company, they’re kind of shellshocked. Some cannot get over the fact that people aren’t in offices and it’s so loud. Or, they want to work 9 to 5 and call it a day. Our environment is not the ideal place to meet those types of expectations. A state of consistent change, the open environment and team aspect do not work for everyone.

We move around a lot; you get to build relationships with people you haven’t met before. You can be in senior management in four to seven years. In our call center, employees bid for different shifts every six months. You can wear pajamas or bunny ears to a meeting and be taken seriously—actually, they’re more responsive to you.

The recruiting team interviews candidates for culture fit and a willingness to change and to learn. They notice how applicants interact at lunch. Do they talk with others or just the person they think makes the hiring decision? Our shuttle drivers tell us what candidates say during the ride back to their hotels.

When did you know you had embraced the culture?

It took me about a year to change from focusing on the 10 percent of employees who cause problems to the 90 percent who do not. I remember Tony wanted to let all employees give out one $50 monthly bonus to any employee they chose. My traditional HR response was “You’re insane.” I thought people would give it to their friends, but some didn’t even give it out at all: They were waiting for people to “wow” them the same way they were expected to wow customers.

I didn’t have any skepticism left by the time we started the Wishez Program in 2010. Employees’ wishes have ranged from asking for homemade frosted sugar cookies to wanting to jump off the Stratosphere Hotel. One worker’s wish for a car was granted when an employee bought a new car and gave him his old vehicle.

I understand you wrestled with staying in HR at Zappos. What happened?

I’d been here nearly two years. People did not like HR when I started. It had the stigma of being the Debbie Downer Department, the rules enforcer. No one wants to be a part of that.

HR was in a transitional period. We didn’t have a Zappos identity. I felt like an outsider looking in. Headhunters started calling me. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, where I stood with the company. I realized when I was talking to the life coach on staff that I had a huge opportunity to do something awesome at this awesome company.

Here, our job is to educate employees. I'm more of a teacher, not a policeman.

We started asking different managers what they needed from HR. An HR generalist started sitting in each department for eight months. Now, they include us in termination discussions. We are invited to teams’ happy hours. We work with them to be part of the good things they do and not just the “You’re getting written up” conversations. Zappos’ ZCON team, which moved to HR from merchandising in January and handles areas such as reception, shuttle services, travel and concierge services, is bringing a new face to HR. I’m having fun now.

I could never go back to a traditional HR job. Here, our job is to educate employees. I’m more of a teacher, not a policeman. Our job is to protect the culture. If HR says “no,” it doesn’t mean no. You have to know all the rules of HR but be able to throw them out. If it’s a rule, is it a good rule?

Hollie Delaney, PHR

Education: 1995, Bachelor of Arts in communication disorders and speech sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Current job: 2009-present, senior HR manager, Inc., Henderson, Nev.

Career: 2007-08, HR generalist manager; 2006-07, HR generalist, employee relations; 2005-06, HR manager, Marshall Retail Group, Las Vegas. 2004-05, HR generalist,, Henderson, Nev. 2000-04, HR manager; 1999-2000, sales manager; 1998-99, sales coordinator; Wet ’n Wild amusement park, Las Vegas. 1998,HR communication specialist; 1997-98, HR training coordinator; 1996-97, HR coordinator; Caesars Casino, Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe, Nev.

Personal: Age 38; born in Salt Lake City; husband Tony; one son.

Diversions: Photography, spending time with family, “huge” Disney fan., (702) 943-7777.

The author is associate editor for HR News.

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