Amazon is often the center of attention in the retail industry, but a story this weekend in The New York Times has folks talking for reasons that have little to do with innovation, faster delivery or a sales event. Instead, it focused on the work conditions at the corporate offices of one of the most coveted employers.
The NYT spent six months profiling close to 100 former Amazon employees. The resulting profile is a company filled with relentless workaholics and a corporate culture where data is prized more than the human elements.
Several employees said they were penalized for health or family issues, several women recounted supervisors who pushed for them to work following the loss of a baby. There are tales of long work hours, an uber-competitive environment where team members are encouraged to provide negative feedback about each other, and where the ranks are cut on a regular basis just to keep talent fresh.
Reactions swing wildly between condemnation and disbelief. The truth, as they say, likely lies somewhere in between.
It's a stark portrait of a company that was built by someone who values data above all else. Amazon, after all, is a data-driven business and more closely resembles a technology company than a retailer. Had Amazon been a traditional retailer, tales of egregious work conditions and insensitive managers would have come to the fore much more quickly, as they did at Walmart.
Also unlike at Walmart, there are no unions or social activists investigating poor conditions, even though conditions in Amazon distribution facilities are well documented. Activity is closely monitored to achieve peak productivity and workers are subject to scrutiny that includes daily searches. The push to use robots for packing and drones for delivery is a pretty good indication of the kinds of goals founder Jeff Bezos has for the business. If they can't turn humans into automatons—and they are certainly trying their best to so—then actual robotics is the logical next step.
There are few customer-facing employees, also dissimilar to Walmart. The employment practices and any abuses occurs behind closed doors and, in the case of those profiled in The New York Times, in a comfortable office complex.
One of the authors of The NYT piece spoke to National Public Radio and when asked why they chose to launch an investigative report about Amazon, she replied (and I'm paraphrasing): "Most of us are familiar with Amazon as customers, but it occurred to us that we know very little about Amazon as a company."
And that's the way Amazon wants it. As long as it continues to provide fast, low-cost goods, it will be free to operate as it pleases. Whether or not that's a good thing is difficult to say. Bezos has the company culture he wants—although he did respond to the NYT piece by saying that anyone working at the company described in the article "would be crazy to stay."
Will shoppers care? It's unlikely. Abuse of white-collar, well-paid educated professionals is hardly a rallying cry for unions or other protestors. Will Bezos care? Only if it gets in the way of Amazon's success.
The internet really is a great equalizer. -Laura