Friday, August 21, 2015

Amazon’s Office Work Environment Is a Product of the Jobs Crisis

After my complaint last week about the lack of recent attention to employment-related issues, one became the big story last weekend.  That, specifically what it is like to be an management employee, was the subject of the main piece on the front page, not the front business-section page, of Sunday’s New York Times.  

The article, or, as it might be called, a 100-megaton stink bomb, “Inside Amazon:  Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, described what it is like to hold down a thinking job at this online retailer, a juggernaut which now has a quarter-trillion dollars in market capitalization.  It’s not easy, nor is it slow-paced, peaceful, harmonious, or, as the story implies and some cited former employees state, humane.  These positions require especially long hours and responses to emails at almost all other times, and are in a confrontational culture in which criticism can be sharp and frequent.  In what has become the most controversial part of the article, employees with health or other non-work problems, even severe issues such as cancer, have been put on performance improvement plans or have lost their jobs in Amazon’s annual removals of their lowest-ranking staff.  One interviewed manager said “nearly every person I worked with I saw cry at their desk.”  As a result, in sharp contrast with those getting the opportunity to work at relatively high pay for large, successful organizations, many new hires have lasted two years or less. 

In the five days since publication, the story has precipitated an outpouring of responses in major media outlets.  One of the first was a broad-based denial of Kantor and Streitfeld’s allegations from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in which he said “this article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” along with his view that the piece described “shockingly callous management practices” and asserted “that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”  Within 48 hours, follow-on pieces were published in The Washington Post, Salon, and Fox Business, and, soon after that, related articles turned up in Financial Times and Harvard Business Review.  These pieces had views ranging from calling Bezos’s response “spin” which was “hard to swallow” (Salon) to questioning what Kantor and Streitfeld wrote, since Bezos had disagreed with it (Fox Business).  Columnist and former Treasury Secretary Robert Reich claimed that “America is a nation of Amazons,” and in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Research is Clear:  Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” the original New York Times story was cited in its first paragraph. 

So what can I add to the conversation? 

First, Amazon’s working conditions, even if accurately described, are hardly unique.  Many physicians, lawyers trying to become firm partners, and front-line Wall Street traders, to name three, have similar hours, on-call requirements, and overall obligations of job intensity.  There are others without such high pay, for example those in the armed services.

Second, the self-critical mentality, which one Kantor and Streitfeld interviewee said was common at Amazon, may not be common in America but is characteristic of not only employees but students in Japan and Korea.  It takes a real toll on those learning or completing tasks, but is a tradeoff, since it can help people succeed. 

Third, not all jobs are suitable for all with the required skills and abilities.  Different people are willing to accept different levels of hardship at their jobs, including the areas the article describes of work atmosphere, time required, and after-hours demands in exchange for advantages such as high involvement, fast competency acquisition, and the chance for promotion and a lucrative career with a gigantic, successful, and growing company.      

Fourth, it may be bias from my own corporate experience (14 years in AT&T management), but I am suspicious if some aspects of the culture Kantor and Streitfeld claimed that management mandated match up with reality.  Are subordinates actually able to criticize those at higher levels without damage?  Are they truly empowered to spend company resources, including money, to help customers outside of established channels?  Can they “disagree and commit,” as put by one of Amazon’s “leadership principles” (reminiscent to me of AT&T’s “Shared Values”), without repercussions?  It is an old business expression that workers will hear from their management that independent thought is valued right up to the day they are fired for it – has Amazon truly beat back the political realities that made this expression trite? 
Fifth, workplaces such as the Times authors described, even if they as their critics say were exaggerated or marred by unrepresentative examples, are a natural consequence of the permanent jobs crisis.  Where workers are in excess, workplace standards will rise.  When there is a large pool of qualified applicants ready to replace those giving up their jobs, high turnover becomes less detrimental.  When a large share of people hired turn out to be unequal to the intensity, hours, and lack of outside obligations a position requires, they can be replaced by others who can try. 

Over the next few weeks and months, much more will be written and published about and on other work environments.  We will gain information about the accuracy of this New York Times story, and more on how companies allegedly or actually function in 2015.  What we should not be is surprised, or think that we are facing something truly new in the world of work.  We are not.  We may, though, be seeing more and more effects of the jobs crisis, which despite a lower unemployment rate is still with us.  That is what the Amazon article truly means.         

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