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Is the Workplace Culture at Amazon Progressive or Destructive?

08/27/2015 12:59 EDT | Updated 08/27/2016 05:59 EDT
Bloomberg via Getty Images
The logo for amazon.com inc. sits on a cart parked in the in-bound area at the Amazon.com Inc. fulfillment center in Poznan, Poland, on Friday, June 12, 2014. Amazon is the largest distributor of e-books in Europe, where the product's popularity has experienced a surge in recent years. Photographer: Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I've been reading some pretty horrifying posts this week about Amazon's business culture. There was the front page New York Times article, written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, a fascinating op-ed piece in the Times by Joe Nocera, and many compelling letters to the editor, responding to the original article.

Kantor and Streitfeld describe a work environment at Amazon that's exceedingly demanding, unforgiving, and adversarial. While some workers are rewarded for doing well, they're constantly made to compete with one-other for these rewards.

Workers are also desperate to avoid the yearly "culls" that happen to those who aren't doing as well, even if this is due to illness, childbirth, family crisis or any other valid reason.

Work-life balance is non-existent at Amazon; an 80-plus hour work week is the norm. I imagine that the relentless pace, combined with the stress caused by this ruthless atmosphere, must be wreaking havoc on the mental and physical well-being of these employees.

Jason Merkoski, who worked on Kindle and other projects from 2006 to 2010 is quoted as saying, "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."

The authors quote Liz Pearce, who worked at Amazon's wedding registry as saying, "I would see people practically combust."

Joe Nocera, the Times op-ed columnist, makes an excellent point when he describes how in the past, a person could expect to be rewarded for putting in years of service at their company, but how today, practices like downsizing make long-term loyalty to a company meaningless.

He goes on to say that Amazon "has taken this idea to its logical extreme," describing how the company will "bring people in, shape them in the Amazon style of confrontation and workaholism, and cast them aside when they have outlived their usefulness." Brutal, indeed.

It leads me to wonder if this style of management has any validity, whatsoever. It certainly isn't good for the workers, but will it really benefit the company?

William F. Baker, director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education at Fordham University, writes in a letter to the Times' editor that "the latest research shows that a bullying management style can yield short-term gains, but sustainable growth is founded on managers who exemplify integrity, inspiration and, above all, kindness."

Another letter to the editor, from Douglas Binder, states that "as a longtime user of Amazon Prime and a dedicated Kindle fan... I would be O.K. with getting my packages in three days instead of two, and getting my kindle books in five minutes instead of one."

Jeff Bezos is obsessed with customer satisfaction, believing that this is what will make his company successful, but should customers be spoiled at the expense of employees?

Kantor and Streitfeld quote Bo Olson, who worked in books marketing as saying that "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."

Joe Nocero says in his op-ed piece that Amazon's culture "maximizes the amount of work a company can wring from fundamentally fungible human beings."

I, too, would gladly accept a somewhat less stellar level of customer service from Amazon, if I knew that its employees would have a better quality work life, as a result.

At Amazon, there's constant scrutiny by supervisors and peers - in the form of something called "Anytime Feedback," which encourages employees to tattle on each-other, even when the complaint isn't real.

According to the authors, the environment at Amazon lends itself to plotting, intrigue, rivalries, alliances and Machiavellian strategies. It seems that none of this would be out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones.

Each year at Amazon there's an "Organization Level Review," in which managers must rank their staff and defend members of their teams from real or spurious complaints in order not to lose their favoured workers.

The authors describe how supervisors "adopt the strategy of choosing sacrificial lambs to protect more essential players." They quote one marketer with six years experience in the retail division as saying, "You learn how to diplomatically throw people under the bus.... It's a horrible feeling."

The environment at Amazon is so competitive, and staff are so intensely scrutinized, that it creates a compulsion within each worker to perform better and better.

Diana Vaccari, an employee from 2008-2014 said that "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 our self-worth from."

As a business practice, it may be generating record profits, but is it really the direction we want to be going in? As a society, we should be asking ourselves, "Is this the way we want our workplaces to evolve?"

As Ron Meyers says, in a letter to the editor, "For some years now, phrases like "unreasonable expectations" have been used in an ironically positive way to describe the challenges and stimulation that high-achieving people are supposed to savor in their professional lives."

He goes on: "But at some point, "unreasonable expectations" are not exciting; they are unreasonable. It's routine now for professionals to labor under the kind of relentless demands that 100 years ago gave rise to unions and labor laws for factory workers."

Years ago, I made a decision to pay attention to my own work-life balance. As a doctor, I knew that my chosen profession could lend itself to overworking, to the detriment of my personal life and general well-being. I made the decision to always factor in time with my loved ones, creativity, relaxation and fun.

I'd never choose to work in an environment like the one Kantor and Streitfeld describe. I feel sufficiently challenged, motivated and satisfied by the career I've created.

If I did work in an environment similar to the one the authors described, I'd surely become demoralized, miserable and burnt-out, losing all of my joie-de-vivre, as well as my effectiveness.

I don't believe that abuse is required in order to bring out the best in us; in fact, I think it's the opposite. I'm convinced that we get the best out of people, in the short and long-term, when we treat them with consideration and respect, and motivate them not out of fear, competitiveness or compulsion, but out of a simple wish to excel.

Joe Nocero wonders whether Amazon's culture "is an outlier- or whether it represents the future of the workplace." I sincerely hope that it's the former, and not the latter.

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