I’ve got a slightly different tech-insider take on the Amazon exposé that I want to share.
Yes, the conditions described in the very long and detailed New York Times Amazon work conditions piece are not pretty. But, Amazon is far from alone in cultivating this type of environment, and I don’t think the conditions described are for the reasons people think (namely, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and founder, being a maniac). Side note: Bezos is by all accounts a saint compared to what the much beloved Steve Jobs was. Most importantly, contrary to popular belief, I don’t think Amazon or any company benefits from this type of culture and would be wise to snuff it out.
Before the New York Times ever broke this story, the writing was on the wall for Amazon. A year earlier, Gawker shared the personal testimonial of an Amazon warehouse worker, and a day later of a white collar corporate worker. That press should have been a warning sign that more was on the way.
The New York Times picked up where those stories left off and took it to the next level by interviewing over 100 former and current Amazon employees to get their views on working for the company. Their testimony describes a culture where you are expected to put in 80+ hours a week, take no true weekends or vacation time, de-prioritize your family and health, answer emails at all hours, politic and back-stab just to keep your job, and get burned out almost immediately. In other words, in exchange for compensation, the company owns you.
Bezos immediately responded that this is not the Amazon he knows. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But that many people with similar themed stories is more than just coincidence.
The Employee as Commodity
It’s easy to blame the CEO when stuff like this comes out, and Bezos should not be absolved of responsibility. However, what’s going on at Amazon is not in isolation. It’s merely a symptom of a much bigger problem at tech companies and in corporate America today: employees are often seen as easily replaceable commodities to burn and churn and get as many hours of productivity out of as possible. And there’s a huge misconception that more hours = more productivity.
I’ve been in the high-stress tech industry, working for an indirect and sometimes direct competitor of Amazon for over 8 years. I’ve put in the 80 hour weeks. I’ve been on the brink of calling it quits a number of times. So I’ve been following this story very closely, can relate to much of what is being reported, and know many people in the industry who have been treated in similar ways. Here’s my take…
Amazon, Facebook, Google, Samsung, Netflix, Microsoft, LinkedIn, Twitter, Apple – much of their success comes from being early movers on key technologies, products, and services that there was a huge unknown demand for. The success of these companies has exploded, and there is immense shareholder pressure for these companies to maintain their torrid early growth rates, so management is poked and prodded to always produce more. With these companies approaching or surpassing 10,000, 20,000, 50,000+ employees, it becomes harder and harder to maintain high growth. As these companies grow in size, there are increasingly more levels of management. Each layer pushes on those underneath them. Every single manager in these companies wants to quickly ascend the ranks and capture the very handsome incremental rewards that come at each new level. What you end up with is a greed-driven, pressure-cooker, ultra-competitive bloodbath. The resulting turnover becomes so high that employees are viewed as commodities out of necessity. This is much of corporate America – not just tech.
Now, when Bezos and other CEO’s say, “This is not the company that I know” (as he has stated), I believe them. Politics mask the truth. Those who ascend into management are wonderful politickers and politickers are great at politicking. Each layer of management is going to paint a rosy picture upward while reaping as much gains as they can from those below. Managers and lower level workers are in constant fear of being ostracized for providing any sort of realistic criticisms upward. And without any union representation, they really have no individual or collective protections. Who is standing up for them? HR (the company’s internal law firm)?
Upper management could work hard at counteracting this by:
- Keeping layers of management to a minimum
- Incentivizing the right behavior, such as a greater emphasis on ‘life’ in the work-life balance equation
But they don’t – because they don’t know the full extent of the problem and if they do, they incorrectly think that turning a blind eye will lead to better financial results. That, and creating a positive culture is a lot of hard work.
The Productivity Myth
One of Facebook’s co-founders, Dustin Moskovitz, had some interesting comments about the tech industry as a whole that I completely agree with (and think they can be more broadly applied to the rest of corporate America). Productivity naturally drops off the more hours you put in. Many still think you get a net increase in overall productivity, but Moskovitz and I disagree. Eventually, with burnout and dissatisfaction from your role, more hours will lead to lower productivity than a balanced 40-hour workweek. That productivity vacuum looks something like this, over hours worked:
Eventually, as burnout and stress sets in, you get less productivity out of 80-hour workers than you do out of well-balanced baseline 40-hour workers.
At the same time, call me old-school, but I still think experience and wisdom have value. Unfortunately, ageism in the tech industry is very real and a 22 year-old with no work-life balance is highly desired over a 30-year old with a family. 22 year-olds don’t argue with status quo either (alas, they too will eventually turn 30 and find their fate has changed).
This corporate sentiment is dead-wrong. There is no reason why an experienced 35 (or 45) year-old with a family can’t co-exist with an eager 25 year-old. That age and experience diversity in the tech workplace is extremely positive and under-valued. The fact that it is not leads to dissatisfaction and eventual turnover.
Additionally – productivity can be driven by fear (clearly the status quo at Amazon). But, recent research links happiness to productivity in the workplace. There are better ways to lead.
Passing the Bill
So what does Bezos think about the allegations against his company?
“I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”
Well, I hate to break it to you Jeff, but they are. What’s the average length of employment at Amazon? One. Freaking. Year. Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay a part of their signing bonus if they leave within a year. As soon as they can keep that bonus (they’ve probably already spent it for therapy and anxiety meds), they are outta there.
Amazon spokesperson Jay Carney defended the high turnover rate at Amazon, saying,
“Attrition, people leaving, cycling in and out of this company, is completely consistent with other major tech companies.”
Ahh… thanks for hammering home my thesis, Jay.
Even if this statement is factually correct, it doesn’t pass as justification. There is a belief in the tech world that employees are easily replaced commodities. That mentality comes with significant costs. I challenge each and every tech executive to explain how this mantra is ROI-positive or in any way beneficial to the company. The average cost of lost productivity due to inexperience and learning curve, missed work time, recruitment, signing bonuses, training, and not long after, losing that employee has to be $100K+ in the tech industry. In some roles I have been in, I have seen it be as high as $10M+. It does not pay to constantly spin wheels just to fill cubes.
Amazon and other tech companies need to seriously ask themselves this question: “Could it be that our success is much more attributable to continuing to reap the rewards of our first-mover advantage and dominant market position than our misguided corporate culture? And could we be even more successful with a better culture?”
I think the answer to both those questions is a demonstrative, “HELL YES!!”.
“If you Don’t Like it, Find Another Job”
Tech workers are much less happy with their jobs, but they are well compensated. The supporters of these types of work environments will often say something along the lines of,
“You know what you’re getting into when you choose to work there. You’re getting well paid. If you don’t like it, leave.”
But when this is the norm in corporate America (the tech industry has just taken it to the next level), where are they going to go? Why is the responsibility always on the worker to make things right by either forcing themselves to digest that bitter pill or pick up and move with the hope that they will have better luck with their next employer? Why do employees have to turn over their lives, rights, and dignity in exchange for being well compensated? Isn’t it enough to provide the company with a shitload of value and return on their investment in you?
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no reason why corporate management can’t demand better. Happy, healthy, experienced, valued, balanced employees not only create the best culture and working environment – but they are the most effective and the best for their employer’s bottom lines. It pays to have a heart.
Corporate America, you can do better than exchanging compensation for the perceived right to own people and shit on them. Amazon was unfortunate enough to get called out for it. Your company could be next.
You have to do better. Because people can and will only take so much. Don’t be the problem – be the solution.
It might be cool to meet you in person one day. Do you ever go to meet-n-greets at conventions or meet your readers?
Interesting perspective. I read that article about Amazon, but I just don’t know what to think about it.
While giant faceless corporations certainly deserve their fair share of the blame, so do their employees. I think most people would be happier making $50-$80K a year and working 40ish hours a week than they would making $150K a year and working 80ish hours a week. The problem is, too many people get caught up on status and the money needed to keep up with the Joneses that they lie to themselves about what they really want. Otherwise, they wouldn’t even apply to high-pressure, high-pay, high-workload jobs like these.
There are plenty of good jobs out there for skilled individuals that pay well – not as well, but well – and don’t require ridiculous hours. It’s just whether or not people are willing to turn down tons of money, especially early in their careers, to find them.
Yeah, and then there’s the folks who “work 80”, but put in 40 actual hours. Once someone does this (especially a manager), it has a domino effect on the rest of the team. Management needs to lead and set good boundaries by not emailing at all hours of the day and on weekends. But everyone else needs to follow suit as well.
I’m ok with the argument that people make about working 80 hours a week it sucks… But if you are working 80 hours a week making $150K a year… well it would seem pretty logical to stream line your fixed costs and save as much of the $150K as you can…
You essentially are working 2x and making 2x so you can work 1/2 as long to retire… I happen to work almost 80 hours a week and make close to $130K… I work really hard but I am compensated for it.. I’m on a 4 year plan to stop working.. at age 37 so long as I focus on that goal and not go off my rocker I should be ok right?
That’s all good in theory. But most white collar jobs are salary, so 40 hours, 60 hours, 80 hours all equals the same pay. Now, in a perfect world, if you put in 80 hours of good work and your manager saw this and you quickly got promoted… great. But it would take a series of promotions over many years to double your salary. If you found yourself in the right situation, with the right manager, and the right promo structure, it could pay off.
In the real world, all it takes is one manager who doesn’t like you, one manager who wants to control salaries, one re-org, one departmental shift, one re-assignment for all that to go out the window. I’d like to say that hard work is always adequately rewarded with compensation, but anyone who has been in the corporate world for long enough knows that isn’t always the case. And even if it is… is it worth 1.1, 1.2, or even 1.5X the salary for working 2X the hours? I don’t know… I’ve struggled with that myself over the years. You’ll probably get a better return on investment working on your likability and making friends in the office than you are plugging away all those extra hours and hoping the right people notice.
Ultimately, it’s up to you and your best assessment and perceptions of your work environment at any given time. I can’t tell people how many hours they should or should not put in.
You nailed it! It is definitely a trade off time vs money vs work effort… The 1.5x or 2x your salary just comes with more taxes too…
I’m don’t feel over worked but on occasion put in extra hours.. That’s what engineers do. Love job and while the pay isn’t as much as I would like I can work with it and know I could easily be else where making less as workers hours so it’s a win for me currently.
Some of us are not into status, but want money so we can retire. I want to be able to retire with my significant other (who makes almost nothing) when I am 67.5. That is going to require some $$.
This is the byproduct of a work environment where the supply of potential workers outweighs the number of available positions. It’s time for a universal basic income to give people a safety net to leave terrible work environments and strike out on their own as freelancers…
Interesting shift in the 1099 work force that is growing bigger than ever. Good employers an good for employees too. Less overall taxes on wages. The loser will be less federal tax dollars and socially security taxes. But it doe help in the way of less people in the traditional workforce also.. Which reduces employee count and increases wage competition for those left working traditional job.
I’ll be curious to see how it changes things in a decade.
While I like the sentiment of the article, I think you’ve got a long way to go to show that the steps you suggest would result in success for a business. How many large tech companies are there? Let’s just say “a lot”. Are you trying to tell me there’s a way for them to be more productive, while retaining employees, that is able to be implemented on a large scale, doesn’t cost them any money, and precisely NONE of them are doing it? I find that a bit hard to believe.
A big part of it, I suspect, is that when a company hits a certain size it becomes pretty much impossible for the passionate employees to make a difference. For every passionate, hardworking employee, there are probably 4-5 who do the bare minimum to not be fired. Yes, ideally the managers would sort them out, but chances are some of those passionate people are going to have bare minimum managers at some point going up the scale and lose their motivation. If I’m busting my ass for 50 hours a week, but another guy sits around doing 8 hours of work in a 50 hour week, and we both get the same raise because of “budget restrictions”, what incentive do I have? On the flip side, if corporate gives managers free reign to give out raises for performance, managers are going to give everyone crazy raises because that makes everyone happy and easier to manage.
I guess what I’m saying is, it’s easy to model a successful corporation on motivated and hardworking employees, where a 40 hour workweek and giving them more free time would be beneficial. In the real world though, a LOT of employees are extremely inefficient. I don’t find it hard to believe they accidentally do some extra work if they’re forced to stay at the office for longer. You always have the option of starting your own company and running it that way (but don’t be surprised if it becomes impossible after you hit a certain size). You could also use that technique when you become a manager. Then again, once you’re managing a group of managers, it may become a bit tougher.
I served 24 years in the military and never once did I work 80+ hours in one week. And I was serving my country. So, there is NO WAY IN HELL I would work that many hours for a company. I’ll take the pay cut. My health, family and quality of life are more important than a few extra bucks. In fact, they are priceless.
Really? What did you do in the military? I didn’t make a career out of it, but when I was in the Navy (and deployed…shore duty was a lot less work), there were practically no weeks where I didn’t work 80+ hours. Keep in mind that during deployment, weekends might have slightly more downtime but still require you to work – 80 hours is about 11.5 hours of work/day, on average.
I do agree with a number of your sentiments here GE, but I really do think you put too much blame on Corporate America and not enough blame on individual workers. As another poster stated, far too many people are obsessed with status and money, and they knowingly kill themselves (and then complain about it) to get these things.
While the pharase “if you don’t like it, then leave!” is a bit cliche, it also holds a lot of truth. I’m glad to see that so many people at Amazon leave due to this toxic culture, but more people need to take this attitude. I have a really hard time feeling bad for people who work crazy hours by choice, when they could always doing something else and take a pay cut.
CNNMoney and Boston Globe recently reported more MBAs are going to tech companies than Wall Street firms. You make a lot of good points, but is there a novelty or “buzz” about going to a tech company? Promises of stock options?
Maybe society is having a fun time beating up Wall Street (almost any politician will do this for votes), but to have “Amazon” on your business card or resume might help write the ticket for the next thing in life.
It’s just interesting that the culture at some of these tech firms can be pretty rough (as you rightly describe) but recent grads are still gravitating there.
I suppose in comparison to Wall Street, tech is probably a walk in the park. However, Amazon vs. Goldman and Goldman pays twice as much? I’m going Goldman.
You got that right… Just had an interesting conversation with a coworker his brother worked for Goldman from 2005-2008… worked 3 years with salary and bonus he made $10M.
He’s 29 and Never has to work a day more in his life nor do his kids… Touche… I’d do that starting tomorrow…
The NYT piece was eye opening. I thought employees of these big tech companies (like Google) loved working for them. I can’t even imagine the health issues that will crop up from working at such a frenetic pace.
If Amazon’s average retention expectancy is genuinely one year, that alone is enough of an indicator of how employees are treated. I am also curious on how Amazon treats its blue collar workers (i.e. phone operators) compared to white collar workers.
The conditions sound awful and I feel very sorry for the employees who have to endure this kind of behavior. This kind of expose posts will help to improve the conditions. As more people become aware of these conditions Amazon will hopefully become embarrassed enough to take action. Great post, thanks for sharing.
This is an eye-opener. I’m glad I never had to work at a company that required more than 40 hours or coming in on a weekend.
This is a great blog post and very thought inducing. I also agree with the theory of lost productivity with the greater number of hours an employee works. I work in a very tradiitional corporate environment, and they unfortunately aren’t willing to make changes related to this, but I try to ensure my associate have plenty of breaks to continue to spark their creativity.
G.E., I think this is one of the best articles you have written to date. Bravo! So where did you escape to?
40 year old married home owner father here. Corporations are a crap deal. Start your own business or forever be someone’s b**tch/slave.
In the WashDC metro area, this article is spot-on, according to my two family members in tech sales (40-somethings). Career burnout is high.
Advice from a retiree: choose your career path and geogaphic location (early on in your career) very wisely. Hindsight is 20/20 and if you are in a capitalist economy, you can realize more gain in a financial career, if you only have an undergraduate degree or MBA. Making a lot of money and being truly happy takes some serious research and forethought, and telling your employer “no bait-and-switch will be tolerated” regarding the work conditions!