Where is Amazon leading us?

The retail giant is conducting an experiment to see how far it can push white-collar employees.
Michael Cook | Aug 18 2015 | comment  

Jeff Bezos    

A scathing account of Amazon’s work culture in the New York Times describes a hypercompetitive work environment which rewards productivity and heavily penalises weakness. According to one ex-Amazonian,“The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

In an email to staff CEO Jeff Bezos angrily denied that his company was really “ a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard”. He said that he did not recognize the company he founded in this portrait and he hoped that “Amazonians” didn’t either. “Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”

Amazon’s work ethic has created controversy before. In 2011 a local paper in Pennsylvania described sweltering summer conditions in one of its mammoth warehouses, with employees working in 100 degree heat. An ambulance was parked outside to take workers to hospital if they collapsed. Air conditioning was installed after the exposé. The workers were being paid only US$11 to 12 an hour.

What the Times claims is that the same brutal discipline is being applied to white-collar workers. It "is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable."

“You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three,” Mr. Bezos wrote in a 1997 letter to shareholders. And that is still the company’s philosophy.

It has succeeded. Jeff Bezos is now the fifth richest man in the world and Amazon is the world’s biggest retailer with a market valuation of US$250 billion.

The Times focused on dark side of working for a company which is trying to reinvent retailing. It describes grown men weeping at their desks, a dog-eat-dog culture in which low performers are ushered out of the company, 80-hour work weeks, long conference calls on Easter and Thanksgiving, criticism for taking family responsibilities too seriously.

A company proverb is “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” an Amazon executive told the Times. “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”

Amazon’s PR machine struck back with a long critique from an Amazonian engineer, Nick Ciubotariu, who declared that the Times article was hogwash. “I live and breathe by the Golden Rule and I believe in kindness, respect, integrity and transparency, and that being a good human being comes before anything else.” 

But he admits that it hasn’t always been that way. He quotes “a very high ranking Executive” who said last year that “Amazon used to burn a lot of people into the ground. This isn’t how we do things anymore, … if you’re burning people into the ground with overwork, you’re not doing it right, and you need to course-correct, or you don’t need to be here.”

Thousands of comments on the New York Times website, many of them from current and former employees, plus scores of articles gave very different perspective on Amazon. They either praised it as an “amazing workplace” or damned it as a Darwinian experience where life was nasty, brutal and short.

Can the two be reconciled?

Yes. The key lies in Mr Ciubotariu’s defence of his employer. “During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night.” 

He is probably sincere. He wants to work 80-hour weeks. That’s the genius of Amazon’s management system. It makes people believe that their liFe is their work. Their job is so challenging, intense and vital that it fulfils all their aspirations.

“I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from,” Dina Vaccari told the Times.

Amazon is hardly unique in cultivating this approach to work. Google’s environment of fun and intellectual stimulation; Facebook’s informality; Apple’s quest to be best – they are all exploiting employees’ desire to find meaning and personal fulfilment.

Previous generations found this in service to an ideal, an institution, a company and, most of all, their families. Sixty years ago the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit would have been puzzled by the fun and laughter at Amazon. He just wanted to get on with the job. His worries revolved around his mortgage, job security, his children and his marriage. His life project was his family.

But the character of bright young executives has changed. It’s hard enough to be married at Amazon. Having children is a notch harder. Having a large family must be downright impossible. The Times spoke with one woman who started work at 7am every day, finished at 4.30pm to pick up her baby from child care and then put in more time on her laptop late in the evening. Her peers criticised her because she left so early. “I can’t stand here and defend you if your peers are saying you’re not doing your work,” she was told by her boss.

The kind of 24/7/365 commitment demanded by bosses like Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs is only sustainable for people whose life project is the corporation, not the family. One telling anecdote in the Times article illustrates this:

Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

Little in this controversial article is new. Bezos has always been famed as a Stakhanovite overachiever. Amazon has always been revered as an intense, feverishly competitive corporation. But it ought to make us ask once again what kind of society these tech giants are creating. Will it be kind of corporate totalitarianism in which families are irrelevant? In which the blue collars workers are paid too little to support one and the white collar workers are too committed to be interested?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

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