I wrote about why people say they hate their jobs in the issue before last. Afterwards, I was reminded of my mother telling me once that, when I was born, they hired what today would be called a nanny.
By Allen Clark
I wrote about why people say they hate their jobs in the issue before last. Afterwards, I was reminded of my mother telling me once that, when I was born, they hired what today would be called a nanny. She had been let go in the heart of the Depression from a long-held dress factory job. My mother asked what she’d done for so many years. “I made buttonholes,” she replied. She marveled at the accuracy of the machine she guided, buttonhole after buttonhole. “Didn’t you find that kind of boring,” my mother asked. “No, Mrs. Clark, somehow I found it kind of fascinatin’.”
She was the perfect fit for that job, apparently, but clearly not the kind of employee Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is looking for. As a recent and controversial New York Times article made clear, Amazon is proud of a work ethos with no room for variance and full of the kinds of things I’d mentioned in my previous column from the people who said they hated their jobs.
The Times interviewed more than 100 current and former “Amazonians” who had worked on all aspects of the business, from Kindle to grocery delivery to drones. Apparently, it isn’t unusual for employees to be required to participate in “marathon conference calls” on Easter Sunday or Thanksgiving. Some reported criticism from their bosses because they didn’t stay tuned in on the Internet while on vacation. “One time, I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said one. Another said she was called right back to work following a miscarriage.
Maybe topping the list is a tool called Anytime Feedback, which is a nice way of saying Spying on Your Fellow Workers. Workers can and are encouraged to send in criticism (and, yes, if you want, praise) about colleagues’ performance. As the Times noted, because team members are ranked, and those at the bottom get pushed out, there’s plenty of pressure to outperform (and maybe inform on) your neighbors.
Amazon’s top recruiter was quoted, “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.” That seems pretty clear when “You walk out of a conference room and see a grown man covering his face,” according to one ex-employee. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
Perhaps most Draconian, Amazon warehouse workers in Pennsylvania were reported in 2011 working in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances outside waiting to take fallen employees to the hospital. It’s like a scene out of “Modern Times.” Like all Amazon warehouses, this one had sophisticated monitors making sure the number of boxes packed and shipped met the ambitious quotas. (After the bad publicity, Amazon did install air conditioning.)
Of course, Amazon keeps innovating and growing. For those who can take the pressure, the work ethic pushes them past their personal limitations and helps them grow, too. In the words of one former employee, “Amazon is the greatest place I hate to work.”
It strikes me that there are other, much more desirable ways to excel in your job. Self-motivation is one. But ultimately, are we on this earth to take our work so seriously that we have to spy on our fellow workers in order to move ahead? Are we so much a slave to the dollar that we agree to be called right back to work following a miscarriage? Is a dollar well earned one we cry over? It’s all a matter of priorities.
P.S. Bezos’ reaction to all this: “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the New York Times would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.” At last check, he’s still there.