BUSINESS
08/17/2015 05:31 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2015

Amazon Only Perfected What American Work Culture Created

We created the 24/7 work culture. Amazon just took it to the extreme.

Nasty, brutish and short. The Amazon workplace, as depicted in this weekend’s damning New York Times front page story, is apparently a Hobbesian world where over-achieving employees work 24/7 for bosses who demand slavish devotion at the expense of their health and personal life until they finally burn out and quit. 

Does that really seem that unusual to anyone? 

The bruising workplace described by The New York Times is basically a stand-in for the white-collar, always-on, male-centric workplace that many U.S. workers know all too well.

Amazon culture, as portrayed by the Times, comes off like the pinnacle of what’s prized at the highest reaches of corporate America: Workers kill themselves trying to please a corporation that, at the end of the day, doesn’t care much about them.

“Amazon is perfecting the American business model: working day and night. No meaningfulness. They’re just better at it than most others," said Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck Center for Leadership. "They’re the top of the game in terms of the future of work in America; they’re a good example of what it looks like, and that’s not a wonderful thing."

Workers don’t stay long with Amazon because of the company’s punishing work ethos, according to the Times reporters, who spoke with more than 100 current and former "Amazonians." 

"When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness," former Kindle team member Molly Jay told the Times. She was labeled a problem worker after she began taking weekends and nights to care for her father, who was dying from cancer. Workers who became parents at Amazon were also penalized, according to the story.

Amazon is perfecting the American business model: working day and night. No meaningfulness. They’re just better at it than most others. Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at Dartmouth

Though the gender dynamics might be old-fashioned, the bruising workplace seems more modern in other ways. Like many of us, Amazon workers are always on, constantly tethered to a smartphone and subject to what are often unrealistically high demands of leadership. 

Unlike in the past in corporate America, where company loyalty was rewarded with a pension and some longevity, today's workers are free agents who must be the "best" lest they get canned. According to the Times, Amazon regularly culls its lower performers through a brutal review process -- of the sort made popular at General Electric in the 1990s -- where workers are ranked and yanked. It's an exercise that pits workers against each other: You need your colleague to perform badly, or you could lose your job and high rating.

This might be OK for Amazon's white-collar workforce, and in his internal company response on Monday, CEO and founder Jeff Bezos noted that these folks can get jobs in a lot of other places. Still, the free agent, "only the best" ethos doesn't work out so well for, say, relatively low-paid Uber drivers, who can lose their jobs if their customer ratings don't measure up.

The values espoused by Amazon trickle out all over the U.S. economy -- indeed, the company has a terrible track record of mistreating its low-paid warehouse workforce.

The modern worker -- especially those of us over, say, 25 -- lives in a soft haze of vague anxiety that the next generation is going to out-produce us, that our employer is going to reorganize us into obsolescence or that we’ll finally just burn out in the cycle of ever-more-efficient technology and the shifting sands of work culture. 

Of course, to anyone working in the intense, always-on work cultures in finance, law and consulting, none of this is surprising. The New York Times reports that Amazon workers are crying at their desks, putting up with harsh criticism and working all the time. Some of that is pretty normal at places like Goldman Sachs -- which recently had to tell interns not to work between midnight and 7 a.m.

There seems to be some sort of notion that tech culture is supposed to be different. And it often can be -- Google has of course made a name for itself for treating workers well, and other tech companies have also distinguished themselves by at least offering solid work-life balance benefits.

Netflix just announced it would give some new parents up to 12 months leave. Amazon apparently doesn’t give any paternity leave at all to new dads. Facebook and Google both have generous parental leave policies.

Tech is just the hot place to work right now. Google, Apple and Amazon are all named in the top five places new business school graduates want to work -- replacing the hedge funds and investment banks of yore. Workers at these companies can make the same great money they might make in finance or consulting, but have a lot more "fun" doing it. There's also the added bonus that for many young, smart workers, it sounds cooler to design Facebook algorithms than financial ones -- especially in the wake of the Great Recession.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said Monday that he doesn't recognize the workplace described in the Times.
Nicole Craine via Getty Images
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said Monday that he doesn't recognize the workplace described in the Times.

In fact, Amazon’s brutal workplace culture, where employees backstab each other to get ahead, sounds a lot like the situation at Microsoft a few years ago. The tech company, under previous CEO’s Steve Ballmer’s watch, was notorious for its "stack rankings."

If you go back and read Kurt Eichenwald’s damning depiction of Microsoft’s lost decade in Vanity Fair in 2012, there’s a scene where managers huddle in a room debating the ratings of employees. It’s remarkably similar to a scene at Amazon described in Sunday’s New York Times article. 

Tech darling Netflix also holds its workers to the kind of high standard bemoaned by some Amazon insiders in the Times story. The streaming video company employs the "Keeper Test"-- managers are asked which of their employees they’d fight to keep and told to get rid of everyone else. The company espoused this idea, along with other big cultural principles, in a slide deck Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg called "the most important document ever to come out of the Valley."

Principles like that may work well for startup tech companies that are trying to grow super fast to succeed. And in fact, some well-known venture capitalists came out to defend Amazon’s winner-take-all culture.

The question is: Is a brutal culture like this sustainable?

"Early on, you might not care," said Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic who also writes and teaches about leadership. "Amazon wants high performance, but how do you get high performance? You have to like to work there." The unfortunately radical idea that a worker’s well-being matters is catching on with more and more companies. 

George notes that it's in a company's interests to hold on to it workers. You treat workers well, in other words, not to be nice -- but because in the long run it will serve your company best.

Indeed, Microsoft -- which has struggled in it transition to maturity -- has done away with its terrible stack rankings.

So far, there’s no indication that Amazon will make a similar change. Bezos seems to be in denial that there’s any sort of problem at his company: "The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know," he wrote in a company-wide email leaked to Geekwire on Monday.

Bezos said the Times piece is mainly composed of isolated anecdotes, and told employees that if there are actual problems to let him or the human resources department know.

Seems like more than 100 people just let him know in a pretty public forum. Here’s hoping he’s working on those issues behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the rest of us should probably check our emails for messages from the boss.

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