Amazon’s White-Collar Salary Slaves

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Don't worry — he'll be fine.Photo: Hero Images

This weekend, the New York Times published an excellent, in-depth look at what it is like to work for Amazon. We’ve heard a lot about the working conditions in which the retail behemoth’s blue-collar wage slaves toil. This time, we got a look inside the white-collar salary monkeys’ Seattle salt mine.

There’s seemingly a lot to dislike. Take this jarring anecdote:

Molly Jay, an early member of the Kindle team, said she received high ratings for years. But when she began traveling to care for her father, who was suffering from cancer, and cut back working on nights and weekends, her status changed. She was blocked from transferring to a less pressure-filled job, she said, and her boss told her she was “a problem.” As her father was dying, she took unpaid leave to care for him and never returned to Amazon. “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” she said.

Or this one:

A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. Their accounts echoed others from workers who had suffered health crises and felt they had also been judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.

It is hard to tell whether the problem is with a few apples or the whole barrel, to be fair. Jeff Bezos, the company’s executive, sent a letter to all employees describing those incidents as “shockingly callous” and inexcusable.

The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

A number of other Amazonians have stepped forward to argue that the story depicted the company culture cartoonishly: people who describe it as an intense but wonderful place, people who work fairly standard eight-to-six-type schedules, people who have taken time off when they needed to do so. Bezos himself pointed to this response to the Times piece from one Amazonian:

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. If Amazon used to be this way (and it most likely was, as you’ll see in the quote below), from my 18 month experience working in two of its biggest product groups, that Amazon no longer exists.

But I think it is fair to say that Amazon is perks-light and rough-handed in a way that a lot of other technology companies are not. In Bezos’s first letter to investors, after all, he wrote: “It’s not easy to work here (when I interview people I tell them, ‘You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three’), but we are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can all tell our grandchildren about. Such things aren’t meant to be easy.” (Hat tip to Mashable for digging that up.)

Why does anyone at Amazon Corporate put up with these Wall Street–type conditions when they could be playing in ball pits and getting their feet massaged at their desks down in Silicon Valley, or working at one of the many other technology or retail firms with offices in Seattle? Well, to quote Don Draper:

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The piece scarcely mentions the kinds of salaries that these employees are pulling in. Indeed, the only dollar figure quoted in the piece is Amazon’s market value. But Payscale data on Amazon’s compensation for a wide range of positions shows a whole lot of six-figure numbers. Moreover, the company grants employees hefty stock options. So don’t worry too much about the demands placed on white-collar workers in a growing, competitive, venerated, respected, remunerative industry. Worry about those wage slaves instead.