Former Amazon Employees Detail Brutal Work Environment

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Amazon
Photo: PHILIPPE HUGUEN

After speaking with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, the New York Times has published a sweeping report about the innovative but brutal work culture at the retailer, which, bucking more staff-friendly trends at other tech companies, “offers no pretense that catering to employees is a priority.” This is the result of a dogmatic effort on behalf of the company and its founder, Jeff Bezos, to reinvent white-collar work for the better, and while the policies have many supporters within the company, others describe an almost dystopian work environment that is shockingly hostile and destructive to employees’ mental health, as well as any semblance of a work/life balance. Reports the Times, “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.’” An apparently popular mind-set within the company is that “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves,” and a former staffer explained, “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

According to the Times, advocates of the company’s pressurized work culture see the relentless focus on competition, combativeness, and criticism as integral to the company’s success. One former human-resources employee referred to this system as “purposeful Darwinism,” and employees who have fully accepted and internalized the Amazonian way are proudly referred to as “Amabots.” To that end, Amazon champions extensive performance reviews, collecting vast amounts of data and metrics to analyze, test, and judge employee performance. It also greatly encourages negative criticism, anonymous and not, of both superiors and subordinates at the company, one of many doctrines that come directly from Bezos:

Of all of [Bezos’s] 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” — to rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful, before lining up behind a decision.

But, as a result, the workplace may also be “particularly hazardous for women,” according to those interviewed by the Times. No women are currently present among Amazon’s leadership, which former staff members indicate may be a direct result of the company’s focus on combativeness and “intangible” evaluation criteria when it comes to deciding who is promoted or eliminated. The report also suggests that motherhood or illness could be a liability, as any factor decreasing an employee’s work hours or professional focus could lead to poor performance reviews and lack of advancement opportunities. Women interviewed by the Times who had fought serious illnesses, and even one who had given birth to a stillborn child, ultimately left Amazon after having their commitment to the company questioned in the aftermath of those events.