Amazon.com is undoubtedly one of the country’s most successful businesses. The Seattle-based online retailing giant founded in 1994 to sell books over the Internet is now worth more than $240 billion, and has delved into cloud computing, streaming video, electronics manufacturing, and other high-tech ventures. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, has proposed futuristic schemes like package delivery by drone.
But according to many reports, the company’s success is fueled by a culture that is harsh on its 140,000 employees, who work in offices and distribution centers around the world. An August 16 expose by the New York Times, based on interviews with more than 100 white collar Amazon employees, described an office so high-pressure that it was very common to see grown men and women crying at their desks.
A typical passage went like this:
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (E-mails 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.”)
Many of the newcomers . . . may not be there in a few years. The company’s winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.
According to the Times article, the company culture at Amazon stems directly from the founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, who has created 14 leadership rules that all “Amazonians” are expected to follow. “Of all his management notions,” the Times wrote, “perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas.”
The boss’s work ethic, the Times reported, has placed Amazon “in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”
Reports of “unreasonably high” standards — and the human cost of meeting those standards — among its front-line warehouse workers go even farther back. For years, former and current blue collar Amazon employees have told reporters at various news outlets of bizarre, authoritarian policies in place at the company’s distribution centers.
Amazon took heat in 2011 for failing to provide air conditioning in a 100-degree warehouse in Pennsylvania, instead having ambulances wait on standby to tend to exhausted and dehydrated workers. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the Morning Call, the company installed air conditioners.
Many local residents are in a position to make their own judgments on that issue — Amazon’s warehouse on Montgomery Lane in Robbinsville employs more than 2,500 people.
According to reports at Gawker.com and other news outlets that are based on interviews of employees, many Amazon polices seem to ensure that employees are doing something productive every minute they are being paid, but require employees to perform certain work-related tasks, such as standing in security lines, or waiting to punch a clock, without pay. Some of those stories were corroborated by one former worker at the Robbinsville warehouse, who spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of being blacklisted by other employers.
The Robbinsville location center is one of the newest, most high-tech fulfillment centers that Amazon operates. The workers share floor space with robots that roll along around the 1.2 million square-foot, half-mile long facility. More than 14 miles of conveyor belts make the process of ordering, selecting, packing, and inspecting outgoing boxes as efficient as possible.
The former worker — who will be referred to as Mike (not his real name) — worked in the receiving department doing inventory control. His job was to double check the counts of everything that came to the warehouse to make sure the computerized inventory was accurate.
Mike worked the night shift, from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m., which ensured a 50-cent-an hour bonus, boosting his pay to $13.25 an hour. Each shift began with a stretching exercise and a briefing from management in which the workers were told how many items they were expected to scan per hour.
Wielding a scanning gun, Mike stood in what he described as an uncomfortably small fenced enclosure on the third floor of the warehouse along with eight other workers. Before each person were three stacks of bins, each six feet high. Normally, the quota required scanning every item in 130 bins every hour — a challenging, but doable rate, Mike said, as long as one didn’t indulge in a bathroom break.
“Some people had a hard time doing it, some people didn’t,” he said. “Some people definitely could not keep up with that pace. You had to stay on your toes and basically go right through without any type of break.”
Anyone who did not meet the quota had to improve quickly, or was let go.
“I saw something the first night I worked there that kind of threw up a red flag in my eyes,” Mike said. “Midway through a shift, a human resources worker came up from downstairs and asked to talk to one of the ladies working at my department a couple of feet away. She had an idea what was going on. She walked away with the HR guy, they go downstairs for about 15 minutes, and she comes back to pick something up. She was in tears, saying `I can’t believe they’re firing me. I’m a good employee.’”
Mike, who has worked other warehouse jobs, thought the mid-shift firing was unnecessarily humiliating. Normally, workers who are being let go are told at the end of their shifts, or called at home and told not to report to work. But he got the impression they were making an example of the fired worker. “They did it right in front of everybody,” he said. “I think they removed her midway through the shift in front of everyone to let everyone know what was going on.”
Mike corroborated reports from other sources about Amazon’s timekeeping policies, which consistently favor the company over the employee. If employees are more than five minutes late to work, they lose pay for the entire hour. Employees are allowed two 15 minute breaks plus half an hour for lunch during their shifts. Because the lunch break is unpaid, employees have to punch a clock when they stop working and when they come back.
However, Mike said, there is always a line at the clock, so of the half-hour lunch break, each employee only has 20 minutes to themselves. People who worked in remote parts of the building had even less time, since walking around the building is also off-the-clock time.
Lastly, at the end of each shift, employees have to go through metal detectors before going through their cars, after clocking out. This policy was the subject of a class-action lawsuit by workers who sought wages for the time they spent standing in the security lines. Their argument was rejected by the Supreme Court in December 2014.
The security checkpoint is one way that Amazon has attempted to deal with a persistent theft problem at the warehouse. Mike said the company has a digital “wall of shame” internal website that displays the names and pictures of workers who have been caught stealing. Smartphones, and, oddly, boxes of Pop Rocks candy, are said to be popular targets for theft.
Mike said there were upsides to working at Amazon. He said the pay was more than similar jobs at other companies, and that Amazon offered a competitive 401K plan and health benefits. He also said the company was obsessively focused on customer satisfaction. One of his managers told a story about driving eight hours in his own car to personally deliver a package that had missed a truck. But overall, he said, the experience was negative. He worked at Amazon for eight days before quitting.
“The policies are definitely designed to favor the employer, from what I saw,” he said. “In my opinion, they think `We have so many people coming in there to apply for jobs, that if you don’t like our policies, we’ll find somebody else.’ I don’t see them valuing the employee too much.”
While high-pressure, data-driven policies and strict quotas are not new for blue-collar workers, the New York Times story said Amazon had begun to apply similar management techniques to its corporate employees.
Bezos has responded to the negative press in a letter to employees. In part, it reads:
“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.
“The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”
Fraser Marlow, head of leadership practice at BlessingWhite, a business consulting firm in Hamilton, was skeptical of the Times story.
“It’s hard to imagine a workplace as brutal as depicted in the New York Times story could survive,” Marlow said. However, he said it was plausible that Amazon was a high-pressure place to work. (Amazon is not a client of BlessingWhite, which advises companies on management practices.)
“Some companies have magnetic cultures,” Marlow said. “They attract some people and repulse other people. Cultures are very self-selecting in that way. Over time, people who just don’t get into the culture leave.”
Another example of a polarizing company culture is Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer that Amazon bought in 2009. In 2012, Zappos switched its management structure to a “holocracy,” where everyone is considered equal, there are no job titles, and people work in teams to achieve common goals. The day-to-day life at Zappos headquarters is almost the opposite of the allegedly draconian regime at Amazon, but the two cultures are nevertheless part of the same company.
Marlow said the part of the story that struck him as being out of line with contemporary business practices was the reported high rate of firing workers. Marlow said he worked at General Electric in the 1980s at a time when the company was letting many workers go because it had become bloated. CEO Jack Welsh had instituted a policy of firing the bottom 10 percent performing workers each year. Marlow said it was a common, though inaccurate perception that this policy has continued at GE. He said it only lasted a few years until all the “dead wood” was gone, and that to do this at a modern-day company would be counterproductive.
“In 2015, if you’re Amazon or any other company, you’re already running pretty lean. People are at high levels of productivity. So that type of strategy as described in the New York Times is really not a contemporary approach that organizations are adopting. If you did, people would say ‘Screw this, I’m going to work in the company down the road that will pay me just as much and won’t treat me as much like a collared slave.’”
The Times article also described a system that Bezos invented where employees were encouraged to give feedback on one another, sometimes in person and sometimes to their bosses behind one another’s backs:
Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.
“We always want to arrive at the right answer,” said Tony Galbato, vice president for human resources, in an E-mail statement. “It would certainly be much easier and socially cohesive to just compromise and not debate, but that may lead to the wrong decision.”
Marlow said corporations everywhere are experimenting with new ways of giving employees performance feedback.
“Many companies are getting rid of traditional performance management,” he said. Traditionally, employees sit down once a year with the boss and get feedback unloaded upon them, before finding out whether or not they get a raise. “Companies are moving towards more frequent feedback — what’s called 360 feedback — from peers, people who report to you, and your boss.”
Companies are finding that employees are reluctant to give feedback about one another. To overcome this problem, some businesses have created internal social media tools, sometimes allowing anonymous feedback. However, this generates another problem, a toxic dynamic that the Times said exists at Amazon. “Everybody gets on that bandwagon and starts slagging off their colleagues, particularly if they think they have something to gain with it. If you make your peers look bad, you have a better chance of survival,” Marlow said.
Marlow said that whether or not Amazon is as dystopian as described in the Times article, the reporting of it might have an effect on the way other companies do business. Because Amazon is a successful corporation with rising share prices, other CEOS might see callous treatment of workers as an example to follow. “All this talk of employee engagement and being nice to the workforce, pampering them and bringing out foosball tables and crazy benefits might go away,” Marlow said. Instead, they might tighten the screws, thinking, “He’s obviously on to something I should be doing.”
Amazon (AMZN), 50 New Canton Way, the Matrix Business Park at Exit 7A, Robbinsville 08691. www.amazon.com.