“Your brand is what people say about you when you are not in the room,” is one of those tech world nuggets of wisdom attributed to none other than Jeff Bezos, ruler of Amazon’s empire.
Unfortunately, when Bezos wasn’t in the room, the New York Times talked to over 100 former and current Amazon employees, and revealed something many of us have long known or suspected about the company’s “brand.” It represents a ruthless, competitive workplace where empathy and teamwork are replaced by an environment of encouraged snitching and annual staff purges.
The anecdotes gathered by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld are chilling, particularly the numerous stories about sick employees and women who had recently experienced stillbirths or miscarriages, and were nonetheless told to hustle harder at work:
A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her.
Though the Times also describes male employees who were counseled out of spending time with their families, some of the stories veer extremely close to gender (and particularly pregnancy) discrimination — and suggest that the fact that Amazon has an unusually low number of female executives might well be a product of its culture.
Online reactions to the piece were swift, and angry. John Green made a splash when he announced Saturday that he was ending his Amazon Prime subscription and encouraged readers to get his books elsewhere:
Today, Bezos declared himself to be shocked, shocked, at this portrait of the company culture. In fact, he encouraged people who received bad treatment to immediately tattle on their bosses — rather than acknowledging that a company culture that prizes ruthlessness, efficiency, and competition (and almost chose Relentless.com as its URL) might encourage this kind of heartless management style.
Besides, Bezos’ surprise rings a bit hollow in light of the fact that reports like the Times’ are nothing new, and have circulated for years. What follows is an overview of some major issues with Amazon that surfaced long before this weekend’s report:
Bezos chose to market books not because books were good, or important to him, but because they were a cheap item to ship and a way to collect data about middle-class consumers, as George Packer noted in his piece on the company in the New Yorker:
It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else…
According to a report Packer cites, Bezos had a plan in place from the beginning: “Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers… After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet.”
The company’s callous attitude towards books is reflected in Amazon’s dealings with publishers, as highlighted during last year’s Hachette dispute. During that standoff, books by important right-wing politicians like Paul Ryan were left alone while other Hachette authors were treated to delivery slowdowns, which represented a deliberate sabotaging of their sales. Nasty stuff. In this sense, Amazon is like an oil or railroad company in the Gilded Age, but as many commentators have noted: books aren’t oil, or steel. They’re intellectual labor. The fact that the company is essentially trying to break publishing on the back of its capitalist philosophy should be scary to anyone who cares about the life of the mind.
But even scarier is the fact that Amazon has been operating this way for years with no outcry, because the workers who are exploited the most are blue collar. Although the Times story focuses on white-collar workers, the “relentless” philosophy applies to suppliers, too. Mac McClelland reported from her time as an Amazon “wage slave,” working at a distribution and shipping warehouse affiliated with the giant. The philosophy here sounds exactly like the one in the Amazon corporate offices in Seattle, except with the possibility of losing fingers and a low hourly wage instead of the cushy salary:
This week, we newbies need to make 75 percent of our total picking-volume targets. If we don’t, we get “counseled.” If the people in here who’ve been around longer than a few weeks don’t make their 100 percent, they get counseled. Why aren’t you making your targets? the supervisors will ask. You really need to make your targets.
During her orientation, McClelland found a man named Brian, who received the exact same kind of treatment that the Times reported parents receiving at Amazon’s corporate headquarters:
Brian already went through this training, but then during his first week his lady had a baby, so he missed a day and he had to be fired. Having to start the application process over could cost a brand-new dad like Brian a couple of weeks’ worth of work and pay. Okay? Everybody turn around and look at Brian. Welcome back, Brian. Don’t end up like Brian.
McClelland was advised to “keep it together,” no matter what:
“Well, what if I do start crying?” I ask the woman who warns me to keep it together no matter how awfully I’m treated. “Are they really going to fire me for that?”
“Yes,” she says. “There’s 16 other people who want your job. Why would they keep a person who gets emotional, especially in this economy?”
In the heyday of the anti-sweatshop movement, activists talked about a “race to the bottom,” in which clothing companies raced around the globe seeking the cheapest labor and the fewest safety restrictions, resulting in our inexpensive clothes — but also to exploitation and even death and destruction. This is not unlike New York City’s manicure industry. Whenever a product or retailer seems too good or cheap to be humane, it probably is.
Amazon’s race to the bottom on book prices, on shipping time, and on employee benefits (it’s the only tech giant without paternity leave) has led to bad results on multiple fronts, in multiple industries.
Let’s face it: Amazon is evil. It’s inhuman in the way it treats workers at the top, as well as its suppliers and warehouse employees and people in the publishing industry — all victims of a system that prizes efficiency and cheapness at the cost of human decency.
Yet many of my friends and family swear by Amazon’s services, particularly those who have kids, live in rural areas, or aren’t in an urban center where they can easily walk to a shopping center. Certainly, the company makes books more accessible and affordable to many, and they have helped some unorthodox authors connect directly to their audiences. You see, Amazon is a bad company that fulfills a need in today’s culture. American workers are time-strapped, and buying things has become our form of therapy, satisfaction, and gratification — not to mention, in the case of items like diapers and groceries, a necessity. Thus the company’s services perpetuate a reality (capitalism’s ever-increasing demands on workers’ time) that simultaneously benefits its bottom line, because time-crunched people shop online and need their items delivered ASAP.
So, should we all stop giving Amazon our money? Personally, yes, I think we should avoid using Amazon whenever it’s possible to go elsewhere, especially with books (Indiebound, Powell’s, and even Barnes and Noble are alternatives). But speaking up is more valuable than boycotting. If you’re a concerned customer, it might be worth it to talk to Amazon’s customer service (1-888-280-4331) and say, “I’d rather have my package a day later and know that you’re giving people sick leave and/or hiring women.” Since they’re so focused on consumer satisfaction, that’s a message they’ll hear.
Amazon’s brand has been damaged by this Times article, probably permanently. Many people who used to associate their name with convenience will now be haunted by the knowledge of what that convenience costs. Hopefully, that will influence the company culture, at least a little bit. But the only thing that can really change the culture is strong labor laws, an expansion of labor unions, and collective bargaining, from warehouses to the tech sector. Every single one of the people in the Times story could have used a union.