Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace
Posted at 16:57h, 25 Aug 2015 in List Archive by Bonnie Halper No Comments 135 Likes Share

Good morning, All,

Amazon has certainly come under fire lately, thanks in no small part to the New York Times piece describing the brutal workplace and environment the company seems to have fostered (Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace
The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.) Stories have come out on both sides of the issue (An Amazonian’s response to “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”; Dear Jeff Bezos: My husband needed therapy after working for Amazon).

What we find interesting is the timing of the Times piece, in light of the infusions of cash that other media outlets have enjoyed of late, (Comcast’s NBCUniversal Agrees to Invest $200 Million in BuzzFeed), what to speak of Bezos’s own investments in both the Washington Post and Business Insider, neither of whom covered or responded to the NYT’s piece, which seemingly everyone commented on, including Mark Suster in his blog: What to Make of Amazon’s Work Practices? The New York Times received no outside investment. Then again, things are not always so black and white with the Grey Lady.

Having worked at startups, we can verify that they can indeed be bruising. It wasn’t long ago that there was a strong focus in the tech press on work/life balance, so the math tells us that Amazon is not alone in its purported practices. Even Facebook co-founder and current Asana CEO Dustin Moskovitz chimed in on the subject: Work Hard, Live Well: Amazon isn’t the only company burning out their employees with unsustainable expectations. Let’s break the cycle. “(There) are actually the carefully considered outcome of profit-maximizing research by Henry Ford in the early part of the 20th century. He discovered that you could actually get more output out of people by having them work fewer days and fewer hours…The research is clear: beyond ~40–50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative…My intellectual conclusion is that these companies are both destroying the personal lives of their employees and getting nothing in return,” he writes, citing the example of a recent Asana candidate who described a rival company’s practice of offering company dinners late so workers would stay on into the night. “This kind of attitude not only hurts young workers who are willing to ‘step up’ to the expectation, but facilitates ageism and sexism by indirectly discriminating against people who cannot maintain that kind of schedule.”

In other words, stop trying to achieve hockey stick growth at the point of a battering ram and note to self: when the work/life balance issue garners that much attention in the press, trust us, something’s wrong, and it would be just the first shot across the bow that there is serious trouble in paradise.

We all have crunch times, but what happens in tech is that, once a worker has demonstrated that he or she can work 12 hour days, the bar is automatically raised, and that becomes the norm, rather than the exception. We understand Suster’s argument, that tech is not the only industry where one is expected to put in long hours, but we remind him that in, say, banking, there are also usually huge bonuses at the end of the year – bonuses that far exceed a worker’s base salary. Not so in tech.

Then there’s this from Motherboard: Amazon’s 24/7 Hell Is the Future of Work.

Founders, on balance, can be a driven and narcissistic lot, to put it mildly, and it has been well documented that CEOs and entrepreneurs have psychopathic tendencies. While it’s not the rule, nor is it the exception, and there are no checks and balances in place to guard workers from often Svengali type behavior. As for early employees – how often are promises made and never kept? As a recruiter, we hear this all the time. As for bad behavior and a Draconian work environment, trust us, Amazon is not alone here. The expectation that employees be available 24/7 is becoming all too commonplace in tech and, if we’re not mindful, it won’t be long before this practice gives an insidious new meaning to the term on-demand economy. Onward and forward.