We are all "Amabots" now: Jeff Bezos just perfected the "burn and churn" philosophy that's sucking American workers dry

For all its revolutionary rhetoric, Amazon is just an outsize example of what plagues our entire approach to work

Published August 18, 2015 1:02PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reed Saxon)
(AP/Reed Saxon)

As an online retail pioneer, Amazon.com has made innumerable contributions in the areas of digital innovation and has had a profound influence on consumer behavior. But as an employer, the Seattle-based company has never had a sterling reputation. The Allentown Morning Call has published several scathing exposés of a local Amazon fulfillment center which described deplorable (if not borderline-illegal) working conditions, while Gawker has posted similarly unforgiving accounts of working at the company’s headquarters. Over the weekend, the New York Times confirmed the latter’s crowdsourced reports—and then some—in the article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.”

Journalists Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld interviewed over 100 current and former Amazon employees to paint a picture of a rigid, unrelenting office culture ruled by data and metrics, long hours and intimidating management practices—a "Lord Of The Flies"-esque environment where the perceived weakest links are culled every year, stack-ranking makes yearly layoffs mandatory, and employees facing serious health problems were put on “performance improvement plans” because these issues impacted their work. “Wrestling Big Ideas” drew a swift, vehement LinkedIn rebuttal from a current employee, and a more even-handed internal company memo penned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in which he wrote: “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.” Somewhere in the middle, response-wise, was a Vice piece by a former employee who liked working there and left on good terms—but noted that “every story rang true” about the “competitive, aggressive work environment.”

Certainly the employee experience at a big company such as Amazon differs depending on the department and boss. But the Times article struck such a nerve because it not only confirmed the stereotype that corporate culture is cold and unforgiving—it summed up the experiences of workers in nearly every industry, not just tech. Power-tripping bosses, incompetent management, lack of work-life balance, guilt for not being available for a job 24-7, and a fear of falling behind due to sickness or time off are endemic in U.S. employment culture, where the 47-hour work week is now the norm, vacation time goes unused and paid maternity leave isn’t mandatory. Technology has made it easier to do a job from anywhere, but it’s also made it more difficult to unplug, and blurred the line between work and down time. Couple this with the pressure to be a workaholic—or at least give off the impression that you’re one—and it’s a recipe for job burnout. Even so, burning out isn’t a sign of weakness; to many, it’s a badge of honor.

One of the most distressing takeaways from the Times article is that Amazon seems content to wear out its talent. One former HR executive used the phrase “purposeful Darwinism,” while Amy Michaels, who worked for Amazon from 2012-2014, observed that “the company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff.” However, people can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be reduced to mere data points: Although analytics can clarify certain aspects of human performance and identify areas of weakness—and attempt to measure productivity, or lack thereof—they can only go so far in measuring the intangible contributions different personality types bring to a workplace. These kinds of things aren’t captured by numbers: The introvert who puts their head down and gets work done, or the organized project manager who keeps things running on time by negotiating obstacles, or the deliberate workers who might not produce quantifiable results, but serve as quiet leaders doling out advice or guidance to younger workers.

Cultivating an emotionally and professionally diverse office culture with a variety of backgrounds and experience seems like it would be key to sparking innovation and progress, two things Amazon strives to achieve. What’s confusing (if not counterintuitive) is that the company both wants to encourage and de-emphasize different viewpoints. One worker asserted to the Times that “if you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” a term the paper clarified means “you have become at one with the system.” Yet accepting the status quo is frowned upon: Challenging decisions—“even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting”—is an anchor tenet of Amazon’s sometimes-contradictory (but excellence-minded) Leadership Principles. Conflict can certainly spark new ideas, but to many people, disagreements are distracting and distressing; in fact, only certain personality types thrive on discord, which perhaps reinforces the idea that Amazon is looking for homogenous aggression more than anything.

This has implications well beyond the company’s headquarters—namely, that as one of the most well-established (and valuable) tech companies, Amazon has the opportunity to lead by example. Yet the Times article points out that the company’s uber-competitive policies are particularly unfriendly and alienating to women. “Several former high-level female executives, and other women participating in a recent internal Amazon online discussion that was shared with The New York Times, said they believed that some of the leadership principles worked to their disadvantage,” the article states. “They said they could lose out in promotions because of intangible criteria like ‘earn trust’ (principle No. 10) or the emphasis on disagreeing with colleagues. Being too forceful, they said, can be particularly hazardous for women in the workplace.”

Being penalized for behaving a certain way is an all-too-familiar scenario faced by strong, confident women—especially in the tech community, which hasn’t exactly been great about achieving racial, gender or sexuality parity. (There’s a reason the stereotype of a white, straight male tech worker persists.) Either way, it’s clear that despite Bezos’ well-known dislike of bureaucracy and desire to create a different business infrastructure, Amazon has unwittingly given into the same kind of intransigent thinking and counterproductive, morale-busting practices that have always plagued slow-moving dinosaur corporations. In other words, Amazon has turned into exactly what it aspired not to be.

Having high standards and thinking big are certainly not negative goals, and tech startups commonly use mission and vision statements as guiding principles and ways to clarify a nascent focus. But as companies scale, they have to become more flexible within this rubric: Creating a one-size-fits-all model of what an employee looks like—and how they should act—is incredibly old-fashioned and short-sighted. In fact, talent is the most valuable asset a company possesses.

On the surface, Bezos recognizes this—in his internal memo, he stated, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.” However, Amazon has the advantage of being in Seattle, a more appealing, opportunity-rich locale for tech employees. Where I live in the Midwest, software developers are in high demand, partly because the region isn’t as alluring a destination as other tech hubs, and the perception is that the companies here aren’t quite as sexy (even if they’re no less innovative or important). By comparison, the “burn and churn” principles employed by Amazon come across as arrogant. Workers aren’t disposable or interchangeable anywhere, but this is especially true when there isn’t a super-deep talent pool available.

Increasingly, consumers want to feel good about the companies they’re supporting with their wallet. It’s that simple. More and more, people are wising up to the fact that low retail prices, a bargain Uber ride or a cheap TaskRabbit gig come at a price—not just financially, but in human capital. Thanks to the sorts of digital innovations Amazon invented, consumers are savvier and more informed than ever, and demand the same sort of transparency and detailed information from the retailers with whom they interact. The Times article not only captured the complexity of working in a high-stakes, pressure-cooker environment—it highlighted the struggles even the biggest companies face operating within an increasingly complex, ever-shifting employment culture as well.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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