Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Inside the Sadomasochistic Hellscape That Is Amazon

Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, in a blistering report for the New York Times on the employment conditions at Amazon. Not in the warehouses, mind you — in the corporate offices:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Any good product or decision requires plenty of discussion, which can sometimes turn heated. That’s okay. But I firmly believe that disagreements on business strategy or the resiliency of new ideas should come from a place of fully comprehending the original position and empathizing with it. Amazon’s corporate culture seems to thrive on and encourage destructive criticism:

Of all of [Jeff Bezos’] management notions, perhaps the most distinctive is his belief that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas. Instead, Amazonians are instructed to “disagree and commit” (No. 13) — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.

It’s extraordinarily infantile to think that the choice is between couched praise and destroying ideas. As I said above, there’s no reason that a pinch of empathy cannot breed better thought and more productive discussions.

The other components of that opening paragraph are worrisome, too. Privately snitching on colleagues is childish, and there’s an employee ranking system in place that’s awfully similar to Microsoft’s stack ranking system. But perhaps most shocking is the erosion of a balance between work and life. Here’s another excerpt:

Some veterans interviewed said they were protected from pressures by nurturing bosses or worked in relatively slow divisions. But many others said the culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being “vocally self-critical” is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster. Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

[…]

Motherhood can also be a liability. Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required.

There’s nothing heroic about this; nobody’s job performance or their level of satisfaction should be tied to their amount of overtime hours. And making veiled threats about motherhood affecting promotional considerations is both outrageous and sexist.

The scariest thing about this article is the number of responses I’ve seen that say something along the lines of “it’s not just Amazon; you’ll probably hear similar stories from employees at other companies”. That’s depressing. A culture of nonstop work is not healthy. It is not something that we should strive for, nor is it something we should celebrate. We need time to dedicate to ourselves, and those we love and care for. Granted, I’m not in charge of a multibillion-dollar company, nor am an employee at one, but I do not think history will be kind to the dedication some employers today expect out of their employees.

Update: Tim Bray says he’s never seen anything like his since he started working at Amazon.