Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Amazon: A Personal Decision

By now everyone is aware of the recent New York Times investigation of the white-collar work culture at Amazon. The August 16th piece was based on interviews with more than one hundred current and former employees as well as those senior managers who were authorized to speak to the press.

I won’t attempt to summarize the very long article, which you can read here, except to say that it reveals a demanding and sometimes brutal work environment in which 75 to 80-hour work weeks are not unheard of and where, according to the Times, a widget in the company directory called the Anytime Feedback Tool “allows employees to send praise or criticism of colleagues to management….” One imagines praise is rare since “team members are ranked, and those at the bottom are eliminated every year.” According to the Times, recruiters from other companies are sometimes wary of hiring former Amazonians “because they have been trained to be so combative.”

 A number of female Amazon employees describe treatment that goes beyond brutal. Here are some examples cited by the Times:

--A mother of three was told by her boss that the demands of child rearing would “most likely prevent her from success at a higher level…”

--A worker on the Kindle team was labeled a problem employee when she asked to transfer to a less demanding position in order to take time to care for her father, who had cancer. 

--After suffering a miscarriage, an employee was told by her boss: “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

--A woman with breast cancer was put on a “performance improvement plan” because her personal problems “had interfered with fulfilling her work goals.”

--A woman who’d given birth to a stillborn child was put on a performance improvement plan in order, she told the Times, “to make sure my focus stayed on my job.”

In response to the Times story, Jeff Bezos sent a message to employees stating that the Amazon described in the article isn’t the Amazon he knows. He also condemned the “…shockingly callous management practices…” reported by the Times and urged anyone with knowledge of such practices to “escalate to HR” or email him directly.

I assume "escalate to HR" is A-speak for rat out, consistent with the culture that Bezos claims he doesn’t recognize.  Here’s New Yorker humorist Andy Borowitz’s take on  Bezos’ letter. The headline: Amazon Chief Says Employees Lacking in Empathy Will Be Instantly Purged.

“Shockingly callous practices” may apply to Amazon’s Seattle campus, but it’s an understatement when it comes to describing the conditions in Amazon’s warehouses, especially given the fact that blue collar workers in a depressed economy often don’t have the option of quitting no matter how miserable the job. See Spencer Soper’s 2011 expose in the Allentown, PA, Morning Call about workers in Amazon’s Lehigh Valley warehouse who were subjected to temperatures of over one hundred degrees, carried away by ambulance when they succumbed to the heat, and then replaced by other workers. (Following Soper’s article and the ensuing OSHA investigation, air conditioning was installed in the warehouse in 2012.) A recent article in makes clear that the Lehigh Valley scandal was not an isolated incident of the punishing working conditions at Amazon facilities. One example cited in Vox: An undercover reporter who, during his shift, had to walk eleven miles and handle a new order every 33 seconds. 

All this by way of explaining my decision to stop shopping at Amazon. As a writer I can’t sever my relationship with the company without impacting other people, but as a consumer I can and will shop elsewhere. As seductive as Amazon's convenience is, the decision is easy  for me—I can walk downtown or drive twenty minutes to a mall—but I understand that for someone who’s housebound or lives in an isolated rural area, for example, it would be more difficult. I mention this to make clear that in sharing my decision I'm not judging anyone else.
I hope you’ll feel free to comment—all opinions welcome.