No Ho Ho: Will Amazon’s warehouse workers benefit from the holiday shopping rush?

Now that the holiday shopping season is moving into full swing, a lot of folks will be clicking and shipping through their gift lists by way of Amazon. As someone who does not enjoy in-store shopping, I understand the appeal. However, I doubt that Amazon’s warehouse workers will be the main beneficiaries of the company’s holiday sales intake, and that should give us pause as we make our shopping choices.

Back in February I explained why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, citing concerns over how the company treats its warehouse workers:

I cancelled my Amazon Prime account earlier this week, and until working conditions for their employees improve, I won’t be shopping there nearly as often as I have previously.

Amazon Prime is a premium membership service that guarantees two-day shipping on almost every item ordered. For frequent customers such as myself, Prime offers easy, dependable, click-and-ship ordering, with hardly any waiting time for delivery.

However, revelations about Amazon’s labor practices have become increasingly disturbing, more specifically the working conditions in its vast merchandise warehouses. For me, the final straw was a recent Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” detailing how the situation is much worse than I imagined….

I’ve cut down on my Amazon orders during 2014, and I’ve resisted the temptation to rejoin Prime. I’ve searched around in vain for evidence that Amazon is making any major effort to treat its warehouse workers better.

To be sure, Amazon’s delivery systems are what Wired called a “Massive Wish-Fulfilling Machine.” Marcus Wohlsen concludes his detailed look at Amazon’s warehouse and delivery operations this way:

Amazon’s warehouses are designed to be wish-fulfillment machines, calibrated to feed our consumer wants with aggressive speed and precision at a scale that has yet to find its limit. We keep supplying more wishes to Amazon, and Amazon keeps turning them into more stuff.

However, Amazon’s systems continue to exact a human toll on warehouse workers. For example, Dave Jamieson, writing for the Huffington Post in May, detailed a lawsuit filed by South Carolina employees:

A new batch of Amazon warehouse workers sued the online retailer in federal court last week, claiming the company’s workplace policies don’t leave them with reasonable time to eat their lunches.

In the lawsuit filed in South Carolina, seven warehouse workers say they were required to continue working and complete their tasks even after their unpaid half-hour breaks began. Once they were done, they would have to wait in line to go through a security screening, then take a six-minute walk across the massive warehouse to get some fresh air and eat.

All told, the holdups typically left them with “less than 18 minutes” to enjoy their lunches….

In addition, here’s how Jason Del Rey, writing for re/code in June, previewed a CNBC documentary on Amazon’s working conditions:

While CNBC found warehouse employees who were thankful for the pay and benefits that come with a job at an Amazon fulfillment center, several spoke out about against the unrelenting pace of work and unreasonable expectations that take a physical and mental toll on employees.

“I felt like Amazon was a prison,” one former female worker said in the documentary. She and others interviewed reported tough working conditions that include being timed on just about any action imaginable, from bathroom breaks to packing boxes to picking products off of shelves.

Amazon is among the companies that seek out older workers who roam the country in search of short-time and part-time employment, especially on a seasonal basis. Journalist Jessica Bruder was interviewed by public radio’s Here and Now program on the phenomenon of “workampers”:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

As you might guess, many workampers are doing what they do because more secure, higher paying jobs have eluded their grasp, especially during this ongoing economic crisis. They probably won’t be enjoying a lot of holiday cheer as they nurse their tired bodies after long, demanding shifts. 

 

Cultivating gratitude at work

Jeremy Adam Smith, writing for Greater Good magazine published by the UC-Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, observes that we are less likely to express gratitude in the workplace than in just about any other setting:

Elsewhere in American life, we say “thank you” to acknowledge the good things we get from other people, especially when they give out of the goodness of their hearts. We say “thanks” at home and in school, in stores and at church.

But not at work. According to a survey of 2,000 Americans released earlier this year by the John Templeton Foundation, people are less likely to feel or express gratitude at work than anyplace else. And they’re not thankful for their current jobs, ranking them dead last in a list of things they’re grateful for.

To remedy this, he describes five ways in which organizations and workers can cultivate gratitude at work:

1. “Start at the top” — “Thank you” should come from the boss first.

2. “Thank the people who never get thanked” — Instead of recognizing the usual suspects defined by high institutional status, how about giving kudos and appreciation to those often overlooked, such as staff?

3. “Aim for quality, not quantity” — Authentic, heartfelt expressions of gratitude count for a lot more than frequent obligatory ones.

4. “Provide many opportunities for gratitude” — People may prefer to express gratitude in different ways, so provide different options for doing so.

5. “In the wake of crisis, take time for thanksgiving” — In the aftermath of a crisis, assess, debrief, and show appreciation for those who helped to get through it.

Potential misuses of gratitude

In addition, I think it’s important to recognize the potential misuses of expressions of gratitude. Two immediately come to mind.

This first is when gratitude is expressed selectively by the Powers That Be to remind everyone who is “in” and who is “out.” When appreciation or recognition reinforces factions, cliques, and hierarchies at work, those left out feel ostracized and neglected at the expense of others who are made to feel superior.

The second is when expressions of gratitude are used primarily to kiss up, kiss down, or otherwise curry favor. Such examples of brown-nosing and manipulation give a bad name to genuine gratitude.

What about your workplace?

Is genuine gratitude a valued expression where you work? Do people feel valued and acknowledged? Are good work and extra efforts validated and acknowledged? Why or why not? The answers will tell you much that you need to know about the quality of life at your workplace.

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Measuring employer heart quality: How does an organization handle worker departures?

This hit me like a ton of bricks the other day: If you want to know whether an organization is a good place to work, take a look at how it treats people at the end of the employment relationship. In other words, the way in which an employer handles resignations, terminations, and retirements speaks volumes about how it values its workers.

Sure, hiring the right people for the right jobs is challenging work. But it’s usually a positive result and interaction. People are glad to get jobs, and employers are pleased to hire new folks to fill their needs. Most everyone feels good about it.

However, concluding an employment relationship is quite another matter. This is, after all, a separation, and with it goes much of the perceived value the worker offers to the employer. For various reasons, the employer, employee, or both have decided that it’s time to part company.

It may involve a resignation or voluntary departure: A worker retires. Another goes to a competitor. Still another pursues a new vocation.

It also could be in the form of an involuntary termination: Perhaps someone is performing under expectations or isn’t a good fit for the position. Maybe business is bad and layoffs are deemed necessary.

Does the organization handle these myriad departures with class and decency, and maybe even support and kindness when appropriate? Or does it treat people as disposable parts, exhibiting as little grace as possible? In the case of involuntary separations, does it typically use the ritual degradation ceremony of same-day terminations, often with an escort out of the building?

Finally, does the organization conduct a genuine exit interview when an employee decides to leave, or does it simply assume that every departure short of a termination is “voluntary” and for positive reasons? Good employers want honest information about why people leave; bad ones prefer to assume there’s nothing wrong.

Of course, where a forced resignation or involuntary termination is the final piece of an extended period of bullying, mobbing, or harassment, then that says all we need to know about organizational integrity.

In sum: Quality workplaces do their best to conclude employment relationships with humanity and dignity, while less wonderful others treat soon-to-be-former workers as “unpersons,” to be quickly processed, dispatched, and (oftentimes) forgotten in a coldly efficient manner.

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What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?

Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.

Yup, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders. Here goes:

Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away

During the early years of Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. By any realistic account, the Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then beat the Japanese.

Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out what must be done and take the first steps toward advancing.

Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks

Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and they had to be shipped to England. All those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.

Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning activity. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success.

Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately

The stakes over warfare can hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.

Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or a societal challenge, the easier it is to be ruled by our hearts rather than our heads.

Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones

If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from those mistakes and remained determined to succeed.

Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.

Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight

Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, and when do you go for it all? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.

Be gracious and humane in victory

Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They stoked the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.

Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment only serves to fuel cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.

Envision something better

As the tides of the Second World War turned, the Allied nations began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic relations and humanitarian efforts.

Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?

“I am powerless….” (Probably not, but let’s talk about it)

Over the past couple of months, I’ve taken note of essays and blog posts where individuals have shared a sense of powerlessness to change things for the better. The saddest of these are proclamations: “I am powerless to (fill in the blank)….” They come from good people who care about making the world a better place, yet have reached a place of deep exasperation, frustration, or hopelessness. Some are venting, others are mourning. Some, having gotten it off their chest, will jump back into the fray, while others seem poised move on or withdraw.

I want to think about this out loud for a few minutes.

I haven’t gone back to find and link to those various writings, as it’s not about questioning or highlighting individuals or their causes. Rather, it’s about recognizing that trying to change things for the better — however one defines “better” — can be hard, challenging work, especially when forces against that change have a lot of power (economic, political, personal, what have you) and exercise it freely. And we happen to live in an age where extreme concentrations of power are ever more common.

In my work on workplace bullying, I see this all the time: Aggressors at work who treat others abusively, and often get away with it. Executives and senior administrators who stoke climates of hostility. HR officers who safeguard abusers and toss targets under the bus. Powerful business interests that want to keep workplace bullying legal.

Nevertheless, I also have been a witness to, and at times a participant in, positive change. A form of mistreatment that didn’t have a widely-recognized label a decade ago (at least in the U.S.) has entered the mainstream of discussions about employee relations. Articles and coverage about workplace bullying appear regularly in the print, electronic, and social media. Some organizations take bullying behaviors seriously and cover them in employee policies. Unions are negotiating about bullying and abusive supervision at the bargaining table. Legislatures are deliberating on and slowly starting to enact workplace bullying legislation.

My experiences are hardly unique. People are exercising their power all the time to change things for the better. Oftentimes they are cast in the role of underdog, yet they are moving the world forward within their spheres of influence regardless.

But what if you are feeling exhausted, hopeless, and maybe a little beaten up?

First, let’s acknowledge that steps to reconsider, regroup, recover, renegotiate, reassess, and reenergize are wholly permitted.

If the work you’re doing to make a difference is overtaxing your body and soul, then you need not be a martyr. Maybe you’re at the point where you’ve done what you can do, and it’s time to pull away.

Or maybe an angle you haven’t considered or fully explored can serve as a breakthrough — or at least as a more rewarding pathway. Perhaps you’re close to that breakthrough with the approach you’re using, but you don’t fully comprehend it.

If you want to cogitate on the stay vs. go question, check out Seth Godin’s short, thoughtful, quirky book, The Dip: A Little Book that Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) (2007). Here’s a snippet:

Quit the wrong stuff. Stick with the right stuff. Have the guts to do one or the other.

The decision may look simple, but we know it’s a lot more complex than that.

Finally, we must keep strive our egos and expectations in check, which is no small task when we’re emotionally invested in something. Especially when our popular culture demands immediate satisfaction and embraces short term “deliverables,” we are primed to expect and celebrate quick results. But deeper change can take time. Even dramatic tipping points are often preceded by a long run up.

The old social activist adage, be the change you want to see in the world, applies now more than ever. In addition, a vital lesson I’ve learned as an educator is that we must also be willing to work for change that we may never personally see. (My friends who are parents may understand this implicitly.)

When we put these two pieces together, we have a lot more power than if we did not.

Can you spot a workplace psychopath from a resume and job references?

In a piece for Mainstreet.com, Kathryn Tuggle suggests that we can identify potential psychopaths from their resumes and job references:

They may seem normal, diligent and affable, but when it comes to new employees remember that crazy can fool you for a little while. Keep an eye out for these red flags, or you could end up hiring a psychopath . . .

Drawing from interviews with a clinical psychologist and an executive recruiter, the piece identifies supposed telltale indicators:

  • Instability as evidenced by many positions over a short period of time;
  • Unexplained chronological gaps in employment histories; and,
  • References who go over the top in describing how “charming” the candidate happens to be.

True, chronic instability, dishonesty and deception, and superficial charm are potential signs of psychopathy and other personality disorders. However, there may be other more innocent explanations behind the indicators identified in the article: Younger workers are more likely to move between employers on a frequent basis. Employment chronologies may look especially spotty in a difficult economy and job market. And some people may be truly charming without being the next Ted Bundy.

A more likely (and disturbing) scenario: The “almost psychopath”

I submit that much of the worst damage to the emotional well-being of workers is done by “almost psychopaths,” a term suggested by Dr. Ronald Schouten and attorney James Silver. Almost psychopaths are smart, ruthless, calculating, and have staying power. As some loyal readers know, I have embraced the Schouten/Silver concept of the almost psychopath and written about it on several occasions. Here’s a snippet from a previous blog post:

Ronald Schouten (M.D./J.D.), a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, and James Silver (J.D.), an attorney specializing in criminal law, have co-authored a fascinating new book, Almost a Psychopath: Do I (or Does Someone I Know) Have a Problem with Manipulation and Lack of Empathy? (2012). . . . The authors describe psychopathy as a “major abnormality” marked by a lack of empathy and behaviors that are “inappropriately deceitful, aggressive, and indifferent to the rights or feelings of others.” . . . Schouten and Silver have dealt with genuine psychopaths in their professional practices, but there’s another type of individual they encounter more often, the almost psychopath, which they describe this way:

Nevertheless, we much more frequently find ourselves dealing with people who don’t meet the current technical definition of a psychopath, but who have more than the usual amount of difficulty following rules, fulfilling obligations, or understanding how to treat others.

. . . Whether because of the nature of their behavior . . . or because they violate social or legal norms so frequently, these people live their lives somewhere between the boundaries of commonplace “not-so-bad” behavior and psychopathy.

Their benchmark for making these assessments is the well-known psychopathy checklist developed by Dr. Robert Hare.

“Almost psychopaths” often are adept at navigating the institutions and place settings of everyday life. They also are more prevalent in our society than full-blown psychopaths. Whereas clinical psychopathy covers roughly one percent of the population, Schouten and Silver estimate that some 10-15 percent of the populace might be classified as almost psychopaths. And given survey data suggesting that those harboring psychopathic traits are more likely than others to ascend to leadership positions (there’s the superficial charm kicking in), it’s fair to assert that a lot of managers and executives fit into this category.

Workplace bullying

In a presentation that Dr. Schouten gave at a New Workplace Institute event two years ago, he applied the almost psychopath framework to workplace bullying. Here’s a partial summary of his remarks:

The “almost psychopath” falls short of meeting the criteria for psychopathy, but nevertheless may exhibit many of the most disturbing traits and behaviors. In the workplace, a good number of almost psychopaths engage in bullying. They often escape detection and removal as they charm their superiors and exploit and abuse their peers and subordinates. Almost psychopaths often are fueled by workplace cultures that enable bullying behaviors. Schouten emphasized that this cultural component is often passed down within an organization. It’s possible that interventions could reduce some of these problematic traits in order to improve relationships in the workplace.

Over the years, I have become familiar with hundreds of reported workplace bullying situations. In many of the worst instances, the chief aggressor fits the almost psychopath profile. Rather than frequently switching jobs, almost psychopaths manage to stay and accumulate influence and power, which they leverage to treat people abusively.

Although I wish that identifying individuals of this nature was as easy as a resume and reference check, in reality it’s a lot more difficult than that. On occasion almost psychopaths are identified and dispatched, but often not before they have done a lot of damage to individuals and organizations.

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Workplace bullying in the educational sectors: First-person accounts

Given the frequency and severity of workplace bullying in the educational sectors — from primary through post-secondary — I wanted to share two items of possible interest:

Higher education

First, The Guardian, my favorite British newspaper, has run a first-person piece on the experience of being bullied in higher education. Here’s the lede:

Bullying is rife in academia – and it is tolerated to an extent that wouldn’t be acceptable in other areas. I’ve seen careers wasted in academia just by bad management and bad practice. My story is an illustration of what can go wrong.

The story intertwines the writer’s difficult personal circumstances and bullying at work, a not-uncommon combination, and it shows the deeper contexts in which these behaviors arise.

For those interested, The Guardian also is sponsoring an anonymous survey on bullying in higher ed that can be accessed from the article, the results of which will be used in the newspaper’s research study on the topic.

K-12 education

Torii Bottomley, an educator in the Greater Boston area, has shared her story of workplace bullying in a short video produced by the Moral Courage Channel:

This is one of many accounts I’ve heard over the years about bullying of teachers at the K-12 levels. It’s a terribly serious problem, and the most horrific stories are like something out of a dystopian novel.

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Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (revised 2014)

Educator finds renewal after being bullied at work (2014)

Deb Caldieri, supporter of school bullying victim Phoebe Prince, faces severe challenges today (2013)

UMass Amherst launches campus-wide anti-bullying initiative (2013)

Legal and public policy challenges facing public schoolteachers: A brief report from Memphis (2012)

Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment (2012)

 

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