The e-commerce sector is booming and along with it the competition is getting more and more aggressive. Ruthless competition demands a great deal of effort and the need for a more persistent attitude towards work increases.
Amazon has for long been seen as a giant in the sector and a firm which is undergoing constant expansion at a quick pace. But it turns out that this quick-paced surge upwards is creating a work culture which is taking a toll on the employees.
Ruthless competition and long hours
New recruits are told to shed poor habits from previous jobs. For eg, if someone runs into ‘a wall’, ie, a problem, the only option is to climb the wall. The company takes pride in overturning workplace conventions and terms it as being ‘peculiar’.
Employees are encouraged to tear apart ideas of colleagues in meetings and work long hours with e-mails, even those arriving past midnight, expecting an instant response. An internal phone directory allows employees to send secret feedback to bosses about colleagues, which has, of course, led to the creation of a hostile environment.
No consideration for personal crisis
Among new recruits, the winners are those who bring in innovations which can collect ‘small fortunes’, while the losers quit or are fired in an annual culling session. Many with cancer, miscarriages and other personal issues are pushed out rather than given time to recover.
Current employees defend work culture
Founder Jeff Bezos rejects many of the popular management bromides that others at least make an effort towards and workers are pushed constantly towards what they call Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions. The recruiters defend the culture by saying, “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”
Bo Olson stayed for less then two years, and like many others he saw people crying in the office. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” Olson said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” he revealed.
Secrecy comes first
While Amazon’s achievements are not hidden, the functioning inside the Amazon campus is shrouded in mystery. Secrecy is a norm with even low-level employees required to sign a confidentiality agreement. Only a handful of people are allowed to speak to the media, and that too includes outright rejection of requests for an audience with Bezos.
Ahead of the curve?
Some say that Amazon has just been early in embracing a work culture that other firms are taking up now. A consultant said, “Organizations are turning up the dial, pushing their teams to do more for less money, either to keep up with the competition or just stay ahead of the executioner’s blade.”
Many of those who work at Amazon said that it had given them a new energy and a hunger to achieve more. One new recruit said that he left his old lumbering job in favour of a gritty and fast Amazon. “Conflict brings about innovation,” he said.
No meals or cash handouts
While Facebook and Google motivate employees with perks like meals and cash handouts to new parents, Amazon does not adhere to any such measure. Here customer satisfaction, or “customer obsession” as Amazonians put it, is the priority. Bezos says that if they become like Microsoft, which he calls a country club, Amazon will die.
No importance to workplace harmony?
There is no room for harmony in the workplace, which Bezos sees as an overrated concept. The norm is to disagree and commit, which means openly criticising ideas without being socially cohesive or polite, in order to get the “right answer”.
But in many cases, the criticism is so harsh, that employees often feel afraid to speak up. This might block out a lot of potentially innovative ideas, hence proving counterproductive as a policy.
The nature of the work is evident from the term that good Amazonians are described by — Amabots. It is a term which means you become one with the system. We would say that this gives validation to the notion that people have to work like machines at Amazon. Doesn’t it?
A current employee, Diana Vaccari, admits that once she did not sleep for four days straight as she had to sell gift cards to other companies. She even paid a freelancer from her own pocket. She said, “These businesses were my babies, and I did whatever I could to make them successful.”
Serious effects on health
Another example of Amazon’s dark side is the example of an employee whose fiance used to come at the campus at ten in the night and call her in order to persuade her to go home. While on holiday in Florida she spent most of her time at Starbucks, trying to get work done. This proved to be a cause for her resulting ulcer.
One former employee says that Amazon is a place, “Where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”
Motherhood is a liability
Elizabeth Willet, a former Army captain who joined to manage housewares, faced her own issues due to the daily feedback system. After having a child, she reached an arrangement with her boss to come in at seven in the morning and leave at 4:30 in the evening.
Most employees didn’t consider how early she came and sent negative feedback about her leaving early. “I can’t stand here and defend you if your peers are saying you’re not doing your work,” said her boss later. She left the company after a little more than a year.
While this does go well for the Bezos model of a meritocracy where people compete and only the best survive, it opens doors for bitter rivalries, creating an uncomfortable environment to work in.
Going a bit too far?
An HR executive recalls being told to put a woman, who had just returned after undergoing serious injuries and another who had suffered a still born child, on performance improvement plans. She called this as the most devastating event she had witnessed. She remembers asking her superior, “What kind of company are we trying to build?”
Another former employee recalls how her status with high ratings suddenly transformed into a “problem”, when she started traveling to tend to her father who had cancer. When confronted by her boss she took an unpaid leave to take care of her ailing father and never returned to Amazon.
A former employee with her own software firm says, “Amazon is driven by data. It will only change if the data says it must — when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”
Perhaps in the race to the top, Amazon is not speculating the extent to which it can push white collar employees to squeeze the most out of them.