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With Zonar, which is used by 5,000 out of 14,000 Zalando employees, Zalando monitors and pressures employees to perform and causes stress. In addition, wages can be reduced, creating a "climate of fear". Employees, who do not want to be mentioned by name, expressed criticism of Zonar to the SZ.

Zalando listens and watches
© Hendra Triatmaja / Shutterstock.com

"No matter how good your feedback is, the boss can interpret it any way he/she wants. If he/she doesn't like you, he/she can bully you out of the company," says one employee.

Zalando, however, presents the system in a positive light. To Zalando management, Zonar is an "important component" of talent management, both employees and managers have the opportunity to "get and give themselves 360-degree feedback," says Human Resources Manager Astrid Arndt. The system is fairer than before, because it is no longer managers alone who decide who gets a pay rise or is promoted. Zalando calls it a "living feedback culture".

Stasi Methodology? 

Employees interviewed by the Süddeutsche Zeitung take a more critical view, speaking of "360-degree surveillance". "I can't just have a bad day. You have to act all the time," says one employee. Another employee equates the use of Zonar, which he finds "impossible", with "Stasi methods", who, if you don't know, were the infamous East German Secret Service. Employees nominate up to eight employees twice a year to act as Zonar judges. Managers, however, have a say in this selection. The Humboldt University researchers say that every employee should keep a permanent record of his or her colleagues' behaviour. The fact that Zalando has moved into partly and fully glass-walled rooms, making workplaces permanently visible, reinforces the impression of surveillance.

Personnel manager Arndt rejects the criticism. Zonar is "not an instrument of control". Rather, there is a justified interest of the employer in monitoring employee performance. Zonar is only used within the legally permitted framework. In addition, the quoted employees are not representative. An internal survey showed: 67% of the employees would recommend Zalando to others, only 13% would consider a change. In addition, there are employees surveyed by the Süddeutsche Zeitung who generally approve of the system and are happy to receive feedback on their work – but it depends on how the company uses it. At the moment, it is rather the case that people protect themselves rather than work together. "Zonar plays a role here. People think about how I look doing the work instead of the work itself."

Anonymous?

Zonar is also less anonymous than it should be. Everyone says: "Give me good feedback, then I'll give you good feedback too. We'll talk about it over dinner," says one employee. Executives talk to each other about their knowledge of certain assessments. Normal employees can't do that. The Humboldt researchers continue to criticise: "Zonar is designed in such a way that it produces the results desired by management". Employees are divided into three groups: outstanding, strong and capable of improvement. According to the researchers, Zalando systematically keeps the top group small. This creates a mass whose pay stagnates.

Zalando also rejects this: "The average salary increases in 2018 and 2019 were significantly higher than the German average of 3.1%". The study describes cases of employees who were advised to judge unpleasant colleagues badly, otherwise their own judgement would suffer. This, too, is not confirmed by the company that employees generally tend to give each other positive feedback. Zalando is satisfied with Zonar: "We believe that with Zonar we are very accommodating to our employees. We listen to our employees and continue to develop Zonar". Some of the points criticized by the researchers in the study are already handled differently today.

Staab and Geschke from Humboldt-Universität see Zalando as a role model in their study for the Böckler Foundation, which is close to the union system. Systems like Zonar could spread, because "from Zalando as the "leading company of digitalization", a "lighthouse function" is assumed. "Zonar bundles dynamics that shape the world of work. Online retailers such as Amazon or Zalando are the vanguard. Amazon was also criticized in 2015 for having a similar system.

This story is also available in German language on our sister news channel, onlinehaendler-news.de.