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Why Conditions At Amazon Are So Stressful

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TED S. WARREN

A New York Times exposé on the stressful and extremely competitive workplace culture at the world’s number one retailer has drawn battle lines within Silicon Valley. Many have come to Amazon’s defense, while others view it as a clear sign the competition-thriving tech industry needs to take a step back and reevaluate.

Amazon supporters say the depicted conditions that encouraged employees to work upwards of 80 hours a week with virtually no vacations, often at the expense of familial duties and relationships, and have their communications and project productivity clocked through performance tools, is just what it takes to be innovative in today’s economy.

Nick Ciubotariu, the company’s infrastructure development director, questioned the Times’ reporting in a LinkedIn post.

When I interviewed at Amazon, I heard all the horror stories from the past. They’re actually pretty well known in Seattle. I was told they were true, that the company continues to take steps to make things better, and that work-life balance was taken seriously. I wasn’t convinced, but I took a bet…

During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask me why emails aren’t answered. I don’t have these expectations of the managers that work for me, and if they were to do this to their Engineers, I would rectify that myself, immediately. And if these expectations were in place, and enforced upon me, I would leave.

Amazon CEO and founder Jeff Bezos responded to the report with a company-wide memo, encouraging everyone to read it and Ciubortariu’s take.

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“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” Bezos wrote. “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly…Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” referring to anecdotes of employees being pushed out or fired for adjusting their hours to take care of children, taking time off to grieve, and for illness.

Bezos may not recognize the Amazon he started 21 years ago, but the key tenets he authored to make the retailer the success it is today were inevitably going to foster negative conditions.

Noelle Barnes, a former marketer for the company told the Times, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” That sums up the meritocratic culture that, arguably, has simultaneously been Silicon Valley’s secret ingredient to success and downfall when it comes to creating and maintaining inclusive work environments.

Business culture across industries can be a determining factor in a company’s success. Research shows happy workers are more productive. Then again, promoting competition and even anti-social behavior is often hailed as an effective tool for companies looking to spur innovation.

Over three-fourths of the workforce, 77 percent, relies on competition between coworkers as a form of wage growth, according to a Columbia University paper called “Competition and Productivity in Employee Promotion Contests.”

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But while competition incentivizes productivity without sacrificing innovation, it encourages bad behavior, lower job satisfaction, and workers are more likely to quit. Even the Health Department uses MSNBC-style Shark Tank tournaments to push employees to create new ideas and solutions, the Harvard Business Review reported.

Amazon has been criticized before regarding strenuous and unfair working conditions. The company recently changed it’s contract practices for its warehouse workers, who had to sign a controversial and far-reaching non-compete agreement that barred them from working at companies that even remotely compete with the online retailer. Workers also frequently protest Amazon’s working conditions, long hours, low pay, and wage theft — a familiar occurrence for mega-corporations such as Walmart, McDonald’s, even Google, and Facebook.

As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told the Harvard University’s 2012 graduating class, “When companies are growing quickly and they are having a lot of impact, careers take care of themselves. And when companies aren’t growing quickly or their missions don’t matter as much, thats when stagnation and politics come in.”