Amazon as creepy Big Brother

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After all the negative attention it received last year from a New York Times exposé of its work practices, you’d think that Amazon would strive to improve working conditions for its employees. Alas, if Josh Eidelson’s recent piece for Bloomberg Businessweek about Amazon’s treatment of its warehouse workers is any indication, apparently this is not the case:

In an effort to discourage stealing, Amazon has put up flatscreen TVs that display examples of alleged on-the-job theft, say 11 of the company’s current and former warehouse workers and antitheft staff. The alleged offenders aren’t identified by name. Each is represented by a black silhouette stamped with the word “terminated” and accompanied by details such as when they stole, what they stole, how much it was worth, and how they got caught—changing an outbound package’s address, for example, or stuffing merchandise in their socks. Some of the silhouettes are marked “arrested.”

Theft is a persistent concern for Amazon, with warehouses full of small but valuable items and a workforce with high turnover and low pay. Workers interviewed for this story say the range of thefts posted on the screens is as varied as the company’s sprawling catalog: DVDs, an iPad, jewelry, a lighter, makeup, a microwave, phone cases, Pop Rocks, video games. Several recall a post about an employee fired for stealing a co-worker’s lunch.

The plight of Amazon’s warehouse workers has long been an ongoing focus for labor advocates and anyone else interested in dignity at work. But this kind of thuggish, Big Brother behavior takes things to an Orwellian level.

Of course, there are more effective and humane management practices that serve as alternatives to Amazon’s. Costco is a prime example of a more positive approach. It offers some of the highest wages and best benefit packages in the retail sector, which, in turn, have contributed to low rates of employee theft and turnover.

Amazon has been a pioneering retailer in many ways, and I have done a lot of business with them. However, in response to their working conditions, I’ve cut down my ordering from them considerably and expressed my concerns via customer service. I don’t think that innovation and poor treatment of workers must go hand in hand. Amazon values its customers and shareholders, but it often regards its workers as disposable commodities.

It’s really not rocket science, is it? If you treat your workers with dignity, you’ll be rewarded in kind and contribute to the greater good. It sure beats shame and intimidation as standard operating procedures. Amazon, you can do better.

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Related posts

Six points on the New York Times investigative piece on Amazon’s work practices (2015)

Why I cancelled my Amazon Prime account (2014)

Servant leadership in the contemporary workplace

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Imagine a world where most leaders see their roles as serving their constituencies, imbued with a sense of the broader good, rather than simply adding bullet points to their resumes in preparation for the next climb up the greasy pole. Imagine professional cultures where ambition and the desire to advance in our careers are balanced with values of care and responsibility.

How can we grow leaders who hold themselves to these higher standards?

Massachusetts educator and organizational consultant Steven Lawrence is an emerging voice on the virtues of servant leadership, a topic that deserves much greater attention. In an essay posted to his Ground Experience site, Steve introduces servant leadership by citing the seminal work of the late Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics:

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

…Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second. Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large. They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

My connection with Steve has been through our common interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying. He discussed servant leadership in this context at the Workplace Bullying Workshop that I hosted last fall in Boston. Suffice it to say, the presence of more servant leaders in our workplaces would sharply reduce the prevalence of bullying and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment on the job.

I find the concept of servant leadership to be enormously appealing and life affirming, especially amidst professional cultures where raw ambition, private agendas, and naked ideology too often prevail. As a denizen of the academic workplace, I have witnessed and experienced the destruction wrought by self-serving administrators and board members. Looking at academe from a distance, one might visualize it as an idyllic work setting, fostered by leaders who share a love of learning, research, and ideas. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, servant leadership is increasingly rare in higher education.

So herein lies the rub: For more servant leadership, you need the presence of — yup — more servant leaders. To me this means that the philosophy and practice of servant leadership should be part of the training and orientation of future and present leaders. This doesn’t require us to cast aside our career goals and aspirations. Rather, we should treat opportunities to lead as privileges that enable us to make a difference, guided by a spirit of service.

Sacrificing privilege to advance social change

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

(Image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

There are many scenarios in which positive social change can occur in society, including our workplaces. With virtually any of these possibilities, chances of success will be increased when supporters of change are willing to sacrifice some of their privilege in order to advance a cause.

By privilege I refer to some advantage, by virtue of wealth, demographic status, social standing or popularity, organizational rank, legal right, and/or inherited trait. And when I say sacrificing privilege, I mean being counted in a way that could jeopardize some of that advantage. It may mean speaking up in a meeting, intervening as a bystander, endorsing an unpopular yet principled position, or otherwise doing or saying something that potentially puts one at odds with supporters, sponsors, or the in-crowd.

For what it’s worth, I do not recommend sacrificing one’s privileges willy nilly, as if to prove some level of courage or principle to the world. It’s not about that.

Rather, it’s about taking smart risks in support of something bigger than ourselves, of possibly “giving up” some advantage for a greater good.

I’m hesitant to give illustrations because I don’t want the examples to define the map on this one. But I know that some readers here, hopefully many of you, get what I mean.

Especially in times when fear and scarcity drive people to seek security, it may be something of a twist when those who have a lot of advantages are the most cautious about taking risks for reasons of principle. (It’s the opposite of the line made famous by Janis Joplin — “Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose” — in “Me and Bobby McGee“!) In any event, if only the have-nots (however we define them) are willing to stick out their necks, then the path to more humane workplaces, institutions, and organizations will be all the more difficult.

Revisiting “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership”

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I recently had occasion to revisit an article I wrote back in 2008, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership,” which appeared in the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, published by Valparaiso University (my undergraduate alma mater). Here’s how I introduced it:

Workplace bullying presents serious challenges to organizations, but it remains one of the most neglected problems in the realm of employment relations. Accordingly, this article addresses the implications of workplace bullying for organizational leaders and suggests measures that can be undertaken to respond to it. First it will describe common bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations. Next it will examine how organizations can act preventively and responsively to this destructive phenomenon. Finally, it will tie together these threads in the context of individual dignity and the practice of values-based leadership.

Although much has occurred in the realm of workplace bullying and employee relations since the article was published, I think it holds up well as an examination of the implications of bullying at work for organizational leaders. The article has been very positively received, now ranking among the 1,000 most downloaded articles on the Social Science Research Network out of over 528,000 pieces posted to the site. You may freely access the full piece here.

Here are a few snippets, which cover familiar ground to long-time readers of this blog:

It starts at the top. Organizational leaders must send a message that workplace bullying is unacceptable behavior. Executives and managers who preach and practice dignity will see that quality resonate throughout an organization. Establishing a culture of open, honest, and mutually respectful communication will have the salutary effect of reducing bullying and other forms of employee mistreatment.

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Education and policies are only the beginning. The next step, a much more difficult one, is to enforce policies relating to bullying by conducting genuine follow-up investigations and where necessary, assessing reprisals, when complaints arise. Unfortunately, bullying targets often report that organizational responses to their complaints about bullying made their experiences worse. One of the most common laments is that “HR was useless” in handling complaints about bullying and in some cases turned out to be complicit with the aggressors, especially those higher up on the organizational chart.

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One of the most difficult decisions from both an ethical and business perspective is what to do with an abusive manager or executive. He may be seen as a “rainmaker” who is good at attracting business. He may be socially popular with others in management, including those who will determine his fate. Oftentimes, a workplace bully will have mastered “kiss up, kick down” tactics that hide his abusive side from superiors who review his performance. “Oh, I cannot believe he’d do anything like that to someone” is a common refrain from those who have been shielded from a bully’s conduct.

If I could write a revised version today, I would say more about the importance of hiring and developing leaders with empathy and character. In the article, I talk about the value of social intelligence, but that’s not enough. We need more executives and managers with heart quality in addition to social smarts.

For those interested in workplace values, ethics, and social responsibility generally, I also suggest browsing through the full archives of the Journal of Values-Based Leadership, which has grown into an excellent resource for scholars and business leaders alike. You’ll find a lot of great stuff there.

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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. 

 

The NFL and domestic abuse: An evolving case study in horrific leadership

Before our very eyes, the National Football League — notably Commissioner Roger Goodell and various team executives and owners — is putting on a show of horrific leadership in the midst of domestic violence allegations against certain NFL players. The current wave of media attention followed the public posting of video footage showing now former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice delivering a knockout punch to his then-fiancee (and now wife) and then dragging her body out of an elevator. Days later, Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was indicted on child abuse charges. More stories involving other NFL players are now popping up.

The Ray Rice story is the most factually developed, at least for now. If you want a sense of the culture of the NFL’s front office and the character of some of its leaders, start by reading this excellent investigative report by ESPN’s Don Van Natta, Jr., and Kevin Van Valkenburg, “Rice case: Purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL“:

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.

Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 94-year history.

“Outside the Lines” interviewed more than 20 sources over the past 11 days — team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice — and found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.

I submit that this story carries relevance far beyond the world of professional sports. In particular, the actions of Commissioner Goodell and Baltimore Ravens executives mimic those of countless other organizational leaders when presented with allegations of domestic violence, sexual harassment or assault, school bullying, or workplace bullying lodged against people they wish to protect due to personal ties or business interests. Whether the claims are directed at a powerful senior executive, a “rainmaking” business partner, a team’s star quarterback, or a golf buddy, they simply choose not to do the right thing.

Federal workers: If you blow the whistle, will you get new “office space”?

If you’re a federal employee who wants a new office, engaging in a bit of whistleblowing may be one way to get it. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the corner window office on the top floor.

David Fahrenthold, reporting for the Washington Post, describes a common form of retaliation toward whistleblowers in the federal government, leading with the story of Paula Pedene, an administrator with the Phoenix office of the Veteran’s Administration:

Pedene, 56, is the former chief spokeswoman for this VA hospital. Now, she is living in a bureaucrat’s urban legend. After complaining to higher-ups about mismanagement at this hospital, she has been reassigned — indefinitely — to a desk in the basement.

In the Phoenix case, investigators are still trying to determine whether Pedene was punished because of her earlier complaints. If she is, that would make her part of a long, ugly tradition in the federal bureaucracy — workers sent to a cubicle in exile.

In the past, whistleblowers have had their desks moved to break rooms, broom closets and basements. It’s a clever punishment, good-government activists say, that exploits a gray area in the law.

The whole thing can look minor on paper. They moved your office. So what? But the change is designed to afflict the striving soul of a federal worker, with a mix of isolation, idle time and lost prestige.

The last point is worth comprehending. It looks minor on paper. It gives Uncle Sam plausible deniability, an out to claim that being relocated to the basement is simply a routine change in office real estate.

Fahrenthold does a nice job of putting Pedene’s situation in the broader context of how whistleblowers are treated in the federal government, so his full article is worth your while if the subject interests you.

Tip of the iceberg

The bottom line remains: Whistleblowers often pay a price for exercising their consciences, sometimes a big one.

We know that retaliation for whistleblowing can get worse, much worse, than being moved to the dungeon. Various forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as wrongful discipline and discharge, often enter the picture. Although a lot of our focus on whistleblower retaliation tends to be on the public sector, it also occurs frequently in the private and non-profit sectors.

Legal protections may exist for a given situation, but establishing the causal link between the whistleblowing activity and alleged acts of retaliation can pose a challenge. Furthermore, if the retaliation appears to be mild in severity, it may not be legally sufficient to prevail on a claim.

If you search terms such as “report on whistleblowing,” you’ll also see that whistleblower retaliation is a widespread, global phenomenon, even in nations where employment & labor laws are generally more favorable to workers. In essence, it’s part of the ongoing tale of how some people in power respond when they called on their wrongful behavior.

Resources

Those who are in potential whistleblowing situations should seek out legal guidance. They may wish to check these sites for information, advice, and legal referrals:

Government Accountability Project

National Employment Lawyers Association

National Whistleblowers Center

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Hat tip to Susan Thomas on the Washington Post article.

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