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The New York Times caused a stir in Silicon Valley with a viral article claiming that Amazon.com brutally exploits its white-collar workers with unforgiving management practices. The investigation caused such an outcry that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos personally responded with an email to employees assuring them that “callous” management practices wouldn’t be tolerated.
What’s odd about the Times article is that nearly all of its evidence was already well known. Current and former employees have been rating Amazon for years on Glassdoor.com.
On the popular workplace review site, which does a fairly good job of aggregating anonymous feedback, Amazon does rank somewhat lower (3.4 stars out of 5) than Silicon Valley icons such as Google (4.4) or Facebook (4.4). But it’s roughly on par with companies like Yahoo (3.4) and Microsoft (3.8).
According to Glassdoor, striking a balance between work and life is a major “con” at Microsoft, Facebook and Google. “There is no work/life balance at Facebook”, wrote one staffer on Glassdoor. And yet, Facebook is consistently rated as one of the best places to work in Silicon Valley (on Glassdoor and other websites that rank tech workplaces).
It’s enough to make tech candidates and emerging employers scratch their heads. If Amazon—in the role of vilified employer—is actually not much worse than its rivals, then what sort of picture does that paint for tech employment as a whole?
Living The Dream, Or Dealing With A Nightmare?
The New York Times painted a bleak picture of life at Amazon, though there was little that was genuinely revelatory. The principal criticisms mirrored complaints already public on Amazon’s Glassdoor page, and matched reviews left on many other Silicon Valley companies’ profiles.
The article quoted one employee as saying, “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.” Of course, many tech companies are known for offering high salaries, perks and stock options, which can help take the edge off. But they don’t replace realistic goals, intelligent guidance and a humanistic approach to management.
One criticism implied that Amazon managers and co-workers pride themselves on brutal honesty and sharp criticism, even if it causes incredible stress. “You can feel comfortable that, if there’s a flaw in your plan, someone will tell you to your face,” one former employee told the paper.
Evidently, Facebookers feel the same way. On Glassdoor one employee wrote:
“It is an intense and demanding work environment. Many engineers work late into the night and there is an expectation that people will respond quickly, sometimes within minutes. If you don’t pace yourself, you can burn out quickly.”
This same Facebook employee ranked the company a perfect 5 out of 5 stars. It’s as if Silicon Valley has become an enabler of sorts for a collective Stockholm Syndrome among tech workers. Employees may complain about negative things, but they themselves may not actually feel the same way.
The story also pointed out one of the more unique complaints about Amazon: According to The Times, the company maintains a rather laser-like focus on thriftiness.
Even before this story, the subject of Jeff Bezos’ management style and the employment experience at Amazon was already the subject of innumerable articles, cautionary posts, and even research papers, and some already highlighted the company’s intense penny-pinching. Even if it was new information, it may not those who have been tracking its development and earnings.
Until recently, Amazon has been known as one of the most successful tech companies that never make money. Given that, it’s all too easy to believe reports like this one, from a current employee on Glassdoor:
“Frugality is the one value that you will end up hating. They abuse to the point of being cheap. Pretty much all the negatives about the company stem from this single value.”
Turnover And Innovation
As an employer, Amazon seems worse than Google, though perhaps just barely. According to Payscale, the company ties with AFLAC for the second-highest employee turnover among all Fortune 500 companies. (Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company is the first.)
The survey reveals that workers tend to leave Amazon after a year. But Google, whose employees tend to stick around for 1.1 years, is right behind it. The reasons for that may vary: It’s possible that people who move to San Francisco expect a certain style of work, while those outside The Valley (like in Seattle, Wash., where Amazon is headquartered) may place a higher priority on work-life balance.
Bezos does brings up a good point in his email response to the story: White-collar tech workers have lots of choices. Technology is a competitive field, where high-skilled workers have plenty of opportunity. If someone can work at Amazon, they likely have a valuable skill set and a resume that can get them a similar salary elsewhere. Unlike factory workers in small towns, Amazon doesn’t have a monopoly on the labor supply.
In other words, if Amazon was really the tech-sweat shop depicted in the Times’ article, then it would stand little chance of even having a workforce. However, that presumes the others would offer a better work environment.
Whether the company is really as bad as The New York Times says, or whether it’s worse than others, may be beside the point.
If you consider Amazon an analog for the broader tech community, then maybe it’s time to consider how some forward-thinking, future-minded businesses wind up being such draconian employers in the first place. Yes, the competitive landscape is fierce, and society has become an on-demand culture. But even that may not justify creating a Dickensian work environment—particularly one that is supposed to breed innovation.
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Photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite