The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

May 23, 2016

Amazon.com’s Culture – Toxic or Thrilling?

A recent New York Times front-page story probed Amazon.com’s hard-driving workplace culture.  The company itself boasts its standards are “unreasonably high.” Is Amazon’s culture abusing its employees?  Some find it thrilling; some degrading. Many cry at their desks. Jim and Steve explore the good, the bad and the ugly of working at Amazon.com.


View Transcript

Speaker 1: It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now a show for anyone who is or has a boss, this is The Boss Show with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Jim: I am Jim Hessler. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services, the co-author of the book, Land on Your Feet, Not On Your Face and I am known widely throughout the planet as the business guy.
Steve: Or at least one neighborhood in Seattle, the neighborhood you live in.
Jim: Yes.
Steve: Because you put the flyers out.
Jim: That’s right, yeah.
Steve: Steve Motenko here, I’m the psychology guy and I’m known a little less widely as the psychology guy because I have devoted large chunks of my life, really my entire life to studying human behavior and relationships beginning with a psychology degree at Harvard. I am now an executive coach and personal coach and work with Jim in leadership development.
Jim: Today on The Boss Show, Amazon.com. We’re going to talk about Amazon and it’s a timely conversation because a major article in The New York Times, Amazon was on the front page of The New York Times on Sunday, I believe, and it was not a complimentary article. It was a difficult article. After all the hype I heard, I read the article, and I didn’t think it was actually quite as rough as I expected it to be, but …
Steve: There were pieces of it that were really rough.
Jim: Kind of disturbing, yeah, yeah. I think a couple of things I want to say to tee up our conversation because I think one of the things that I want to make clear is I’m here neither to praise Jeff or to bury him in the Shakespearian vernacular, right.
Steve: Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.
Jim: Yeah, and I’m not going to take the show as an opportunity to pound on Amazon, but I’m also not going to bend over backwards defending them either. There sure are some interesting issues that come up in this conversation about this major … We are in a studio right now where we are literally looking at buildings that have Amazon employees in them, so we’re right in the garden of the beast here.
Steve: It’ll be lucky if we get out of this recording session alive. Building on what you just said, Jim, it would be too easy and it often is too easy for commentators, for pundits, to make things black and white. To pound on Amazon is the worst hell ever visited upon corporate America or to do the opposite which some might do and say hey, if you don’t like the heat get out of the kitchen.
Jim: It’s not what we do on The Boss Show.
Steve: No, it isn’t. The reality is a lot more subtle and nuanced than that, so if you’re into subtlety and nuances stick with us because we’re going to explore some of them.
Jim: I have a series of questions that came up for me in regard to this story. Interestingly, the first question was a question that I decided doesn’t matter, but I figured a lot of people are going to be asking it anyway and that is would I want to work for Amazon. The conclusion that I came to is it doesn’t matter whether I would want to work for Amazon or not. What matters is a lot of people do. I didn’t really think my opinion on whether that’s a workplace I would want to work at is really even critical for this conversation that you and I are having today. The fact is people are lining up around the street to work for this employer.
Steve: I think it’s true for really any organizational culture. There are some people who fit it and some people who don’t and, in fact, in our book Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face, we call out fit as a crucial element of workplace motivation for everyone. Yeah, you want to work for a place that fits your own style, your own ambitions or lack thereof, your own sense of work life balance as opposed to dedicating your entire life to work. There are a lot of criteria and because any one individual doesn’t want to work there doesn’t mean that there aren’t others who should be working there and who will be fulfilled working in a very hard-driving environment.
Jim: Also, as we launch into this conversation I want to make clear that I think there are really two different conversations here. One is about the blue-collar worker at Amazon and the person who toils away in the warehouse environment and the other is the knowledge worker who works in the air conditioned office and makes a lot more money. I think when we talk about Amazon we can’t talk about it generically, we have to recognize that there’s really two different workforces at that company.
Steve: When we come back let’s take a step back and talk a little about what The New York Times alleged in its quite thorough article about what’s really going on at Amazon. You’re listening to The Boss Show.
Jim: It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News, The Boss Show continues.
Steve: Hi, I’m Steve Motenko. I’m the psychology guy, welcome back.
Jim: I’m Jim Hessler, I’m the business guy talking about Amazon today. Stay tuned, it’s an interesting conversation. We are on Twitter, we are on Facebook. We have an interesting dialogue that we’re generating on LinkedIn at The Boss Show connections group and we have a listener line at 206-973-7377 and we would love to hear from you with your listener comments, questions, and suggestions.
Steve: Before the break we were talking about an article recently in The New York Times on page one about Amazon’s culture. It alleged in typical New York Times thorough reportorial style some pretty severe things about Amazon’s culture. Clearly as you may have heard it’s a very hard-driving culture. Now that’s the bottom-line and the benefit of it being a very hard-driving culture is that people are called to excellence through it. The drawbacks are many, many of them detailed in this The New York Times article. Allegedly people who … Employees who have illnesses, miscarriages, cancer, and are pushed out of the company instead of being allowed time to recover, that sort of really egregious behavior was one of the most serious allegations.
Jim: Yeah, and we don’t have a lot of evidence here, we have anecdotes. Now clearly The New York Times felt there was enough anecdotal evidence to run a front page article on it, so I think obviously there are some reasons for concern here and I don’t want to gloss over that by any means. One of the questions that came up for me, some of the issues were around the family-friendly issues, right, which we’ve talked about on the show before and in an environment where some people are able to put in more hours than other people because they don’t have families, they don’t have children.
  There’s a pecking order that is developed and it tends to harm women more than men because the women are the caretakers. This seems to me a clear example of that where people who want to have families and be home for dinner are going to pay a penalty within this organization for that choice. I have two very divergent responses to that. One is that’s a shame. There should be a company that you can work at and have a family and be home for dinner.
Steve: That is as friendly to women as it is to men, accessible to women.
Jim: Then the other divergent idea that comes into my mind is whether or not any business really has an obligation to make accommodations for employees who have children versus those who don’t. From a purely libertarian perspective I think you could argue the point that it’s nobody’s business. If you want to work at Amazon you’re going to have to work 60 hours a week. If you don’t want to work 60 hours a week don’t work at Amazon. That’s what the free marketers would say and part of me says there’s some legitimacy to that argument.
Steve: Yeah, I think there’s some truth to that. The distinction, again one of the subtleties and nuances is that in a completely level playing field where any employee is free to … Any employee can find another job that pays what they need to be paid easily by leaving Amazon or by not choosing to work for Amazon in the first place is … If the playing field is that level between employer and employee then there’s really nothing wrong with claiming as a company this is what we’re about if you want to work 60 hours a week and you want to absolutely drive hard to give your best then this is the place for you, if not then it isn’t. We need to consider the market and if you get a job at Amazon and then find out and in a way there’s a caveat emptor thing here, right, let the buyer beware, let the job applicant beware. If you find that it isn’t a fit for you then how difficult is it to find another job if you need a paycheck.
Jim: Almost all jobs have some lifestyle choice attached to them. Certainly you and I are self-employed, so there’s security issues there. If you want to be an entertainer or a musician or an athlete or an accountant there’s lifestyle choices attached to each and every one of those career options and Amazon in that sense is no different.
Steve: Yeah, I can’t disagree with that, so let’s find things …
Jim: So don’t.
Steve: I won’t, so let’s find things we can disagree with, but we’ll think about that during the break. Meanwhile if you’d like us to consider a pet topic of yours on The Boss Show or maybe you’d like to be on The Boss Show or you would like to even contact us to tell us what you think about how we’re doing, let us know, talk to us at TheBossShow.com is our email address. Listener comment line, 206-973-7377. You’re listening to The Boss Show.
Jim: Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show on KOMO News.
Steve: Steve Motenko, that would be me. Welcome back to The Boss Show, I’m the psychology guy.
Jim: I’m Jim Hessler, I’m the business guy. Today we’re tackling the issue of Amazon and the workplace environment at Amazon as discussed in a front page New York Times article in which there was a lot of criticism levied at this major northwest employer for many of their practices around people.
Steve: By the way, interestingly, they interviewed over 100 current and former Amazon employees and including some senior managers, but they were not allowed by Amazon to interview top executives.
Jim: Yeah, and I think this is another thing that needs to be said about Amazon which is it’s really a notoriously untransparent company.
Steve: We’re all about … Jim and I are all about transparency.
Jim: I’ve even noticed this. We both live in this community and I meet a lot of people who work for the larger employers in the area and I don’t hear people talking about Amazon very much. It’s really …
Steve: Yeah, interesting. I don’t either.
Jim: Yeah.
Steve: You hear a lot more about Starbucks, about Microsoft.
Jim: You do, Boeing.
Steve: And about Boeing.
Jim: Yeah, but you don’t hear Amazon people talking about working at Amazon very often. That occurred to me when the article was out.
Steve: You know why that is? Because none of them are out in the street, they’re all working …
Jim: They’re all working.
Steve: … constantly.
Jim: We mentioned at the beginning, too, that there’s really two levels or classes to use that word of employees at Amazon. There’s the people who live in smaller markets, work in warehouses and make 9, 10, $12 an hour and then there’s obviously the highly paid software developers and knowledge workers who work primarily here in Seattle. I think while I object to some of the things in the article about how some of the knowledge workers have been treated, I think the part that disturbed me most was the discussion of some of the business practices around these lower wage warehouse workers, where these people really don’t have a lot of choices and don’t have a lot of career options.
Steve: May not have another company to go to …
Jim: They may not have another company within …
Steve: … to find a job.
Jim: … 100 miles where they can find a job which is not true of a knowledge worker.
Steve: If Amazon treats them like [inaudible 00:12:40].
Jim: It’s not true of a knowledge worker in Seattle. There’s lots of opportunities.
Steve: There was a piece in the article that said that … You may remember this, Amazon came under fire a few years ago when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse, I’m quoting from the article, toiled in more than 100 degree heat with ambulances waiting outside taking away laborers as they fell. This is crazy. After an investigation by the local newspaper the company installed air conditioning. Where I want to go with that is it’s one thing to have a hard-driving culture, it’s another thing to have that hard-driving culture lead to that excess because it’s one thing to ask for excellence of everyone and efficiency and effectiveness, it’s another thing to be inhumane in your treatment of workers.
Jim: Here’s the question that I think is most important and I’ll be interested to see how you respond to this question.
Steve: Is it what is life about?
Jim: We’ll tee it after the break. This is going to be too big to get into in the next short little bit of time we’ve got left in this segment.
Steve: Do you want to just ask the question or let people think …
Jim: I want to ask the question.
Steve: … about it during the break.
Jim: What is the responsibility of all of us who buy from Amazon in creating what Amazon is?
Steve: Yes, we haven’t talked about this you and I, Jim, but I completely agree, that’s the overarching question and really looking forward to getting into it with you after the break. Hey, if you want to chat with us there’s a number of ways you can do it. You can call our listener comment line at 206-973-7377. You can send us an email at TalkToUs@TheBossShow.com or you can interact with us on your favorite social media platform, Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. Stay tuned. You’re listening to The Boss Show.
Jim: KOMO News, The Boss Show is back on a northwest lifestyle weekend. Here’s Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Steve: Hi, I’m Steve Motenko, I’m the psychology guy.
Jim: Wake up, Steve.
Steve: C’mon, it was only three seconds.
Jim: I’m Jim Hessler, I’m the business guy.
Steve: I was daydreaming about working at Amazon.
Jim: Yes, there you go. We’re talking about Amazon today about that New York Times article that was not particularly complimentary of many of Amazon’s workplace practices. Right before the break we said what culpability or responsibility do we all have, all of those of us who are consumers of Amazon products and buy from their site, how much do we participate. Let me ask maybe a slightly different question, but what does Amazon represent in our society? I was really reflecting on this, faster, how fast, convenient, how convenient, cheaper, how cheap. This is a company that’s trying to figure out how to deliver me a six-pack of underwear with a drone.
  This is a company where their entire business model is built on faster, faster, faster. Nothing is ever fast enough, nothing’s ever cheap enough, and nothing’s ever convenient enough for the consumer. Isn’t it natural that that same culture would drive inside the business and nothing’s ever good enough, nothing’s ever fast enough. No matter how well we do we’ve got to drive harder. It seems to me the culture inside the building is a natural … In many ways a natural, I’m not saying healthy, a natural outgrowth of the business model and the way they go to market with consumers.
Steve: Not only that, the culture inside the building and the business model are reflections of American mainstream culture. This is not Amazon, this is America. We want things faster, we want things more convenient, we want things cheaper and so if we are to blame Amazon for that culture maybe we ought to look inside ourselves first.
Jim: Yeah, a great question. Go through the grocery store these days and look at all the crap that’s on the shelves that’s trying to create time and convenience for the consumer. How much of it’s wrapped in plastic, you have these little lunchable things for the kids which is half plastic and half food.
Steve: Even the food is half plastic.
Jim: Yeah, and then watch television and watch all the commercials and watch how  hard companies are working now to shave off a nickel off the price of something or shave five seconds off the consumer’s time requirement to actually use the product. Ask yourself where does this end? Where does this stop? At what point is fast fast enough and convenient convenient enough and cheap cheap enough.
Steve: Maybe if you are also trying to shave a nickel off of every purchase maybe you’re part of the problem. If we get letters for that we get letters.
Jim: Yeah, and so one of the things that I think about a lot is whether we are really paying the true costs of the products that we buy. I think Amazon’s a wonderful, amazing engine for delivering consumer products to consumers. It’s really remarkable what they’ve done. I stand in awe of what they’ve accomplished.
Steve: Ah, but the externalities.
Jim: The externalities, right, yeah.
Steve: The things that aren’t considered in the price of the product.
Jim: Yeah, and so when I was reading the article I was reading in … Rather than necessarily looking at it as an ethical issue or an issue of fairness to the employees, I was looking at it as the natural outgrowth, an externality to use your term of the business model of this company which rests its entire reputation on being faster, quicker, cheaper, and more convenient than any other provider of consumer products. Of course, they drive their employees like slaves. That’s the only way they can be successful.
Steve: Right, and to the extent … That’s why they’re not transparent because if we have people find out that they drive employees like slaves then maybe they might stop purchasing from Amazon. That’s my overarching question. If I know that my purchase is a factor in the suffering of others, do I choose to purchase elsewhere and would you?
Jim: How do you know that? You and I have talked about this before. There’s a lot of people who love working for Amazon, so do I stop buying from Amazon? No, I don’t think so.
Steve: More on this Amazon situation as disclosed by The New York Times recently in conversation between Jim and me when we come back. You’re listening to The Boss Show.
Speaker 1: It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News, The Boss Show continues.
Jim: I’m Jim Hessler. This is the show for anyone who is or has a boss and I am the business guy.
Steve: I’m Steve Motenko, workplace wisdom with heart and humor. That’s what we hope to offer and I am the psychology guy. Jim, in this conversation about Amazon, the biggest big picture question for me is for the sake of what? If Amazon’s culture is as described in sometimes horrifying detail by The New York Times, if the purpose, if for the sake of what is to be the best damn retailer on the planet and we only want people whose drive for excellence matches our company’s drive for excellence for the benefit of the customer and we hire people who are willing to sacrifice leisure and family to pursue that excellence then I say let the job applicant beware.
  It reminds me of the NFL. Not all of us even if we had the talent would choose to take that bruising that they take every week which shortens a lot of lifespans, but if you’re driven in positive ways to be absolutely the best that you can be then let the applicant beware. On the other hand, if the purpose is to make more money than any company on the planet and workers be damned in the process because we are going to stomp on you as our employee if you’re not absolutely giving 150% and working 80 hours a week and we’ll abuse you if it means saving money then we’ve got a huge cultural problem.
Jim: We do and that’s really well said, Steve, thank you. There’s a lot of moral grey area in this whole conversation.
Steve: Yeah, there is.
Jim: A moral grey area is always difficult to deal with. I’m also struck by the fact that what one person may find intolerable about working at Amazon may be exactly why somebody else wants to work there.
Steve: Right, it may be thrilling for them, yeah.
Jim: And so we can’t … anymore than any other employer we can’t make Amazon work for everybody. We can’t make it what everybody wants. Now if they violate the law, you and I have talked about this during the break. Clearly if they’re violating labor laws and they’re acting in discriminatory ways then I think society has a right to clamp down and say no, that’s not in line with our values as a society. Apart from any illegalities, which I think some of the things in the article were illegal activities, but unless that’s widespread I have to say just what you said. If you want to go work for Amazon know what you’re stepping into, know what you’re sacrificing and have an idea of what you want to get in return for this commitment that they’re asking you to make because it’s not going to be a walk in the park.
Steve: No, it isn’t and Jeff Bezos, the CEO, says that. He says our standards … He brags about our standards at Amazon being “unreasonably high.” He says it’s not an easy place to work and it’s not. Now, of course, the argument about choice breaks down as you said not only if they’re violating the law, but if they’re really abusing workers. The article talked about a world of frequent combat. They talked about a place where physical illnesses push people out rather than allowing time to recover. They talk about a place where people are harshly critical of each other. These are not good things by anybody’s standards. They’re the excesses that result from this hard-driving culture.
Jim: I’m not a free marketer, but a free marketer would say that is a problem which should take care of itself with time because Amazon simply would not have people who are willing to work there at some point if these become egregious
  and widespread.
Steve: Yeah, and it may well do that, it may well take care of itself over time.
Jim: They may already be losing talent or not getting the talent they want because of these practices. This article certainly will not help their case.
Steve: Final thoughts on Amazon.com and its hard-driving culture when we come back. You’re listening to The Boss Show.
Speaker 1: Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show on KOMO News.
Steve: Hi, Steve Motenko here, I’m the psychology guy.
Jim: Jim Hessler, I’m the business guy. We’ve been talking about Amazon today. If you want to hear the show in its entirety I suggest you do so and we’ll tell you how to do that in a minute. Working for Amazon is somewhat like being at war and war can be a very exhilarating experience for a lot of people.
Steve: Oh, we’re going to get letters on that one, too.
Jim: If you talk to the greatest generation many of them will tell you that fighting in World War II was the most intensive and engaging experience of their entire life. War has casualties, war creates casualties and there’s a war being fought in Amazon to win the consumer’s wallet. It’s not a pretty war. It’s exhilarating, it’s exciting, there’s bombs exploding, there are casualties. Decide whether you want to put on that uniform or not.
Steve: The Boss Show is produced by Tina Nole at Larj Media, L-a-r-j. Our sound engineer today is Kevin [Dadrel 00:25:00].
Jim: If you missed any of the show you can get it in its entirety online at TheBossShow.com. That’s also where you can go to contact us. If you’d like to chat with us on Facebook and Twitter we’d love to hear from you. To connect with other professionals talk to us at The Boss Show connections group on LinkedIn.
Steve: Thanks for listening.
Jim: Don’t forget, rule number six.
Steve: Rule number six.
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