Breaking News: Amazon is Still a Brutal Place to Work

1893223723_47d1c2845d_oAmazon is a company known for being brutally competitive with other retailers (and suppliers), and for fostering a Darwinian working environment. This company maintains a grinding pace in its warehouse and backs it up with a $5,000 bribe to quit, but that's nothing compared to the way it treats the office workers.

The NYTimes reported on Saturday that Amazon has created an environment which is literally Darwinian (the weakest percentage of employees are fired annually):

On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

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.”)

 ...

Ms. Willet’s co-workers strafed her through the Anytime Feedback Tool, the widget in the company directory that allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management. (While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.) Because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom eliminated every year, it is in everyone’s interest to outperform everyone else.

...

Resources are sometimes hoarded. That includes promising job candidates, who are especially precious at a company with a high number of open positions. To get new team members, one veteran said, sometimes “you drown someone in the deep end of the pool,” then take his or her subordinates. Ideas are critiqued so harshly in meetings at times that some workers fear speaking up.

We've been hearing reports like this for years. Amazon's practices have been described as secretive and adversarial, and they've been likened to The Godfather.

According to one anonymous report, Amazon has been maintaining this environment for at least the past decade. (Edit: And yet, Amazon's turnover rate is not any worse than other huge corporations. )  It's all part of what the Financial Times called Bezos' policy of ruthless pragmatism.

I hope you like your Kindle with a dash of the tears of the overworked and a sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial employee, because this is Amazon's core philosophy.

image by Drab Makyo

About Nate Hoffelder (11585 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

9 Comments on Breaking News: Amazon is Still a Brutal Place to Work

  1. If you don’t like it, quit. Amazon’s turnover rate isn’t the worst and isn’t much worse than most other tech companies:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2013/07/28/turnover_rates_by_company_how_amazon_google_and_others_stack_up.html

  2. Nothing that doesn’t go on at other companies. They just have an app for it.

  3. It’s a shame Amazon is so mean to it’s employees. There is a wonderful company called Meadow, where employees can come in any time they want, they work at their own pace, and they’re encouraged to focus on being nice to each other and… oops. I’m sorry, that company when bankrupt. Never mind.

  4. The Slate link in the comments is both interesting and odd. Amazon’s median pay is $93,000? That indicates to me that the info is about full-time, probably upper-management employees, not seasonal or part-time employees. Yes, it is quite possible that people getting $93,000 or more will want to stay on even if the work atmosphere is fetid. On the other hand, maybe people at the bottom of the pole just don’t want to leave to MacDonalds. There are simply not enough details in the link.

  5. The “Darwinian” personnel policies (which Darwin specifically rejected) are very reminiscent of Enron’s. Enron was wildly successful until it suddenly crashed and burned. In the post-mortems the company’s dog-eat-dog personnel policies and the isolation and lack of teamwork they fostered were identified as a significant factor contributing to the disaster. The best analysis is that of Malcolm S. Salter, Innovation Corrupted: The Origins and Legacy of Enron’s Collapse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

  6. Whether Amazon’s personnel policies will maintain or sink the company is still unknown. Right now jobs are still difficult to come by so people don’t quit what puts food on the table. When the job market turns from few-jobs-lots-of-workers-wanting-jobs to many-jobs-too-few-workers-to-fill-them for a sustained period of time will be a better test of the viability of Amazon’s policies.

    As you suggest, Nate, one needs to “vote” with one’s pocketbook. I prefer to avoid Amazon. It doesn’t mean I never buy from Amazon, occasionally I find I have no choice, but Amazon is the place I go to only as a last resort, namely when what I want is not available elsewhere. I’d rather pay a few dollars more than support Amazon.

  7. Streitfeld’s article seems to me heavy on generalization and light on facts. That makes it quite a lot like any article he ever wrote on the subject of Amazon. I’d give it more credence if a journalist without his apparent agenda had written it, but apparently he’s good enough for the NYT.

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