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The Daily

NYT on Dystopia Works (Or Does It?)

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Aug 17, 2015
footsteponguyThe New York Times has pierced online retailer's veil of secrecy to find a workplace that seems to operate like a Dilbert cartoon—except less funny—with the company growing rapidly on the backs of stressed out, overworked employees who are actively discouraged from seeking any sort of work-life balance. Though even low-level employees are required to sign an extensive confidentiality agreement, the Times talked to over 100 current and former employees to paint a picture of a workplace driven by ruthless and deliberate Darwinism, where working nights and weekends is the norm, and Machiavellian social maneuverings are not just tolerated but actively encouraged. Staffers there are held to a standard that is, according to the Times, deliberately engineered to be unreasonably high in order to drive employees to greater and greater feats of productivity and company devotion. It is a system policed not only by management but fellow workers as well, who are encouraged to leave anonymous feedback on peers they think aren't performing well—that is, when they're not urged to tear apart each other's ideas in person. 

In this respect, Amazon seems to be the polar opposite of other tech companies like Google, which are notorious for the generous amenities offered to their workers in order to foster a sense of well-being and satisfaction so as to attract and retain top talent. In an environment where more and more businesses seem to be taking a cue from this practice, it would seem at first glance that Amazon's model would create numerous difficulties in personnel management, leading to serious deficits in the bottom line. However, points out the Times, this is hardly the case: In fact, the retailer is growing faster than ever and doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon. What gives? While the article describes numerous staff morale problems, including the apparently common sight of people breaking down and crying at their desks, the Times also says that many feel the pressure cooker environment challenges them to be the best they can be. Significant, too, is that they can work on the innovative, influential projects that bring them not just hefty compensation but the feeling that the work they do is meaningful, a key factor in what workers today look for in an employer. 

There's also the matter of self-selection: People more attracted to that culture are more likely to work there, while those who can't stand it will generally tend to quit, if they even bother to apply there at all. In fact, Amazon offers cash incentives for workers to leave the company if they don't think they're a good fit. And even if people think they are a good fit doesn't mean they'll stay either: The retailer still uses the stack ranking system (where managers are required to let go of their lowest-performing workers every year, even if they're actually doing fine) that was abandoned by companies like Microsoft and GE for being too demoralizing. 

While this corporate culture might seem unusual in an era where more companies are stressing the need for work-life balance and self-care, truthfully it might just be a more extreme version of what's the actual reality of work in America today. Right now, more than 50 percent of people work longer than the standard 40 hours a week, with 18 percent having work weeks of 60 hours or more. On top of that, Americans take fewer vacation days and retire later than their peers in other developed countries such as the U.K., France, Sweden and even Japan. With this in mind, someone might draw the conclusion that at least some of the talk businesses make about effective work-life balance amounts to little more than lip service, particularly for women, and that perhaps Amazon, while unusual, is at least honest about its relationship with employees. 

What's more, when companies do talk about workers having sufficient time for themselves, this rhetoric can be critiqued as conflating recovering from work with recovering for work. Leisure, in this model, is not an end unto itself but a tool that allows people to work even harder and better, time off turning into one more part of the job description. 

Further, there's also the matter of culture. Even while more people are clamoring for an economic environment that respects people's lives outside of work, there's also a very strong pride in doing the opposite, a 110 percent culture that lionizes long hours and makes heroic the grueling schedule that stands as a symbol for accomplishment. While the particulars may be different today, this attitude is far from new

Or, perhaps, Amazon's model is more like a Japanese holdout in the Philippine jungles, refusing to surrender to a more humane, balanced approach to work. But even the Japanese holdouts eventually came to join post-war civilization, and perhaps Amazon will as well: CEO Jeff Bezos, when confronted with the article, noted that the company talked about by the Times doesn't sound like the Amazon he knows, but said with more than 100 interviews, it's clear that there's a problem. A memo circulated shortly after the piece came out said that the company will not tolerate callous management practices, and urged people to go to HR if they know of any stories like the ones described in the article. Time will tell whether things will change and, if they do, whether that will blunt the growth of the online retail giant.