White-Collar Life At Amazon

Picture via James Duncan Davidson and Wikimedia Commons, used under CC 2.0.

Picture via James Duncan Davidson and Wikimedia Commons, used under CC 2.0.

This weekend’s remarkable New York Times piece on the white-collar working conditions at Amazon landed with quite splash. It’s a very good bit of in-depth reporting, after six months of interviews with former and current employees at the world’s largest (in terms of valuation) retailer, that deserves to be read in full. So please do that.

There so much to be read in this account that’s nearly impossible to chose just one example, but this screen-capped three paragraph shot is as egregiously good as any to give a good sense of what some workers have had to endure in a workplace with a 5-year 85 percent turnover rate:

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It strikes me as an entirely logical outgrowth of an intense office culture that informs you first-thing “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work” and “You either fit here or you don’t” that tragedies like miscarriages and cancer would be treated like job-obstructing, nose-upturning ‘personal issues’ that put you on a type of work probation. It’s also inevitable that there would be pushback to better represent those who had the good fortune to benefit from being single, young, healthy and successful. After all, it worked out well for them and there are two sides to every story.

Except some sides are more relevant than others. On Monday Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos released an incredulous-reading memo in which the Times report didn’t “describe the Amazon I know […],” among other logical responses from an tech executive that doesn’t like having his fervent work philosophy scrutinized when it doesn’t fit the narrative in his head. He wouldn’t be the first head-honcho that read about what some of his employees endured and didn’t recognize the company they worked for — I doubt he recognized the business that produced these types of work conditions as well. Of course later in that memo he adds that “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

Jeff Bezos also wouldn’t be the first company chief that wouldn’t work under the same conditions some or all of his employees had to endure. I fondly remember, a lifetime ago, working a blue-collar job that was in trouble (well, you know, the Great Recession). They had brought in one of those career firm-hopping CEOs who one morning showed up in the office, sun-blasted skin and unbuttoned collar below a head of slicked-back blond highlights, addressing a room full of dirty men (and a handful of women) about the bright new future that he’d never go through himself. The company sold out less than a year later.

Now, look, I know in the broadest strokes this is to be expected. The skillset to be an executive is not going to be the same skillset that ground-level workers need to get the job done. And in those rare instances where the top boss comes from the bottom it doesn’t necessarily lead to a more equitable or fair workplace for those that don’t rise. But Bezos’ situation is unique as the singularly, and all-encompassing, near Matrix-sounding environment that produces quotes like “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.”

So while I understand someone like Matt Yglesias sort-of dismissing the prevalence of those white-collar workers who lose in this system in favor of highlighting the much, much worse conditions of Amazon’s blue-collar workforce, the disparity doesn’t invalidate the Time’s investigation. This is clearly very much a part of this company’s story, and we should accept both accounts as important lived-experiences for the public to know. When you write the Genesis of your own firm and successfully inject the company Kool-Aid all the way down the ladder, well, you reap it all buddy. In the end Bezos deserves all the long hard looks and judgements coming his way.

There will be many hashtag hottakes and narratives (like the one Yglesias provides in the aforementioned link) to emerge from the Time’s reporting, but I found a different piece as a perfectly appropriate, if unintended, companion piece — an excerpt of Alison J. Pugh’s “The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity.”  This is also very much worth your time but in it Pugh describes the reaction of, in this instance, lower-wage workers responding to ever-increasing levels of job insecurity with unwavering devotion to companies that reciprocate with cold-hearted business philosophy:

To be sure, some of this behavior is driven by fear—if you perceive you are more likely to lose your job, you may work harder to make the employer want to keep you. At the same time, however, Americans do not just work hard: like Beth, Marin, and Nicki, many also profess great attachment to their work, identifying with employers’ needs and perspectives and reserving admiration for busy people who work hard. American veneration of work is a longstanding cultural theme, remarked upon by such disparate observers as Thomas Jefferson, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Max Weber. In essence, given two possible responses to increased job insecurity—less work attachment, as they mirror what they get from employers, or more work attachment, as they strive to be among the chosen few who get to stay—American cultural heritage made choosing one of those paths much more likely.

In essence we have a 21st century workforce that gazes into the maw of contemporary wage-living and justifies its decision to embody such unrequited love from a centuries old cultural work ethic. As such, it’s an employment-derived identity system that works incredibly well for all companies and not very well for most workers. It’s this broader picture that worries me most, even as the Times piece proves its relevance to the uniquely dystopian churn-and-burn tech farm that is Amazon.

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