Six points on the NY Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices

 

Last Sunday’s New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s white-collar work practices has been stirring up a lot of discussion, and if you’re at all interested in the experience of work in today’s digital age, then you owe it to yourself to spend some time with it.

Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld tell a story of a highly pressurized, survival-of-the-fittest work environment, based on over 100 interviews with current and former Amazon employees:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

It is a culture driven by data, customer preference, and a single-minded devotion to company success. The article suggests that even serious personal circumstances are no excuse:

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

It’s a piece that digs deep into the culture of Amazon and the management philosophy of its founder and leader Jeff Bezos.

The Times article has triggered an avalanche of commentary on the Internet, especially among news and commentary sites that one might deem moderate to liberal in their orientation or that frequently cover the high tech industry. The New YorkerLos Angeles TimesSlateSalonThe Guardian, and Vox are among the countless sites that have weighed in — sometimes thoughtfully, other times more predictably.

It also prompted a response from Jeff Bezos (which I’ll discuss below) and a heavily read defense of Amazon by a current employee posted to LinkedIn.

While recognizing that this is a discussion-in-progress, I’d like to share six points that I’ve mustered about the Times Amazon story and its aftermath.

Observation No. 1: It’s too early to tell if this is a “tipping point” journalistic event

Is this the Big Story that gets us to look more critically about the experience of white-collar work in America? Judging from the mega-clouds of Internet commentary, one is tempted to say absolutely yes. But let’s return to this question in a year or two for an accurate answer.

In the meantime, I think it’s safe to say that this is a trending water cooler topic in many large organizations. Surely the Times article and related pieces will offer fodder for many, many class discussions in business schools, especially management, leadership, human resources, and business ethics courses.

Observation No. 2: Jeff Bezos’s response speaks volumes

Not surprisingly, Bezos has strongly denied the characterizations of Amazon’s work environment and practices reported in the Times article. In a follow-up piece, Streitfeld and Kantor reported that Bezos:

deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

So here are the main possibilities:

  1. The Times got the original story very, very wrong;
  2. Bezos is being disingenuous;
  3. Bezos is simply on another planet when it comes to management philosophy, and/or,
  4. Bezos doesn’t know about employee practices and policies in his own company.

Could the Times have blown it? It’s highly doubtful. This investigation covered a ton of ground. The reporters also requested an interview with Bezos, which was refused by Amazon.

Personally, I think it’s a combination of items 2, 3, and 4.

Very revealing to me is what Bezos shared with his workers. Streitfeld and Kantor further reported on a memo that Bezos circulated to Amazon’s employees:

In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.

“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.

Translation: We have zero tolerance for lack of empathy. Please drop a dime on anyone who falls short on this measure so we can purge them.

Yikes.

Observation No. 3: Meanwhile, back at the warehouse…

The enormous response to the Times story suggests that our economic class biases are showing. Allegations of terrible working conditions and low wages for Amazon’s warehouse workers have been surfacing for years, yielding nothing like the current outcry.

Last year, in a piece explaining why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account, I highlighted a Salon investigative piece by Simon Head, “Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers,” which detailed the warehouse working environments:

As at Walmart, Amazon achieves [fast delivery systems] with a regime of workplace pressure, in which targets for the unpacking, movement, and repackaging of goods are relentlessly increased to levels where employees have to struggle to meet their targets and where older and less dextrous employees will begin to fail. . . .

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by [Frederick] Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. . . . London Financial Times economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences.

Observation No. 4: We (or at least many of us) are complicit as customers

As some of these commentaries are recognizing, consumer demand for nearly instant gratification is fueling Amazon’s workplace practices. Amazon’s regard for its own employees may be questionable, but it gives customer service the highest priority. (A search for surveys on “best customer service” will verify this.)

However, that very consumer demand is feeding Amazon’s all-consuming workplace culture. Here is how I explained my decision to cancel my Prime account last year:

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.

. . . Many years ago, I cut my working teeth in retail stores. When the store floor was busy with customers, or when a shipment of goods had to be unloaded from delivery trucks, we stepped up and got the work done right. When things weren’t as busy, we dialed it down a bit. Overall, people did their jobs steadily and dependably, and we didn’t need to have our every move timed and monitored by managers. We didn’t make a lot of money, but we were treated decently. Amazon, however, regards its warehouse workers as human robots.

I’m not suggesting that we completely boycott Amazon. But customer options such as Prime fuel their very worst labor practices. Surely these workers deserve better working conditions, even if it means that we wait, say, three days rather than two for a delivery.

Observation No. 5: Amazon’s workplace practices highlight the fault line between extremely hard driving management and bullying

The theme of workplace bullying does not manifest itself in either the Times article or much of the resulting commentary. Instead, the focus is on a management style and organizational culture that demands complete commitment and hyper-competition.

That said, assuming accounts of the company’s responses to severe employee health conditions are accurate, then Amazon has a remarkable empathy deficit. The intentions may be all about notions of “excellence,” but the practices reveal, well, an out-of-control sense of control over workers’ lives and well being.

Observation No. 6: Newspapers and their reporters still matter

This is why (among other reasons) we still need newspapers and investigative reporters who are capable of carrying out lengthy investigations and then reporting their findings in detail.

Most Internet news/commentary sites cannot do this. They may break a story now and then, but not one requiring this level of background work. The abundance of current online commentary on Amazon’s work practices was enabled by the spadework done by Times reporters Kantor and Streitfeld and their colleagues.

***

This column makes me the latest among the stampede of commentators on this story. I hope it has provided some useful food for thought.

5 responses

  1. The management monitoring behavior is toxic. I saw it in telephone service employees and saw the physical and emotional damage it does. People in a Panopticon (where management can watch unseen and pounce on the workers, or do so in a jail environment) react as if they are constantly watched. The research I read showed just how dysfunctional it makes workplaces. The illness, protective behavior, turnover and hostility at work cost the employer in the long run.

  2. There is something I have been saying for quite a while. It is about when Germany was in the throes of the NAZI party. I have heard many say on the subject that although it was horrible there, at least the Germans (NAZIs) kept the trains running on time. To that I say, who cares? If life has become hell on Earth, it matters none if things run on schedule. Because life doesn’t count any more. People don’t count.

  3. I live 2 miles from the Amazon Warehouse in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. Each day, if I leave at around 4 pm I am stuck in their shift change traffic. Next month I will print out some of the FFWB flyers and maybe walk the line of cars (once clearly off the Amazon property) with them. Should be fun. I will check to see if I need a permit of some type. Angie Woodward, Kentucky Coordinator

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