‘Everyone in My Division Is Talking About That Article’: A White-Collar Amazon Worker Opens Up About the Times Piece

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Seattle, South Lake Union, Amazon campus,
Photo: Joel Rogers/Corbis

What could it possibly be like to return to work on a Monday morning after the most respected newspaper in the country declares your company a “bruising workplace,” eviscerating it in a nearly 6,000-word piece? In the days following the New York Times story about the fiercely competitive culture at Amazon, one woman who works at the Seattle campus agreed to speak with Science of Us about the employee reaction to the article, on one condition — that she would be anonymous, and that all identifying details would be kept vague.

For the most part, she said, people in her division have reacted the way you’d expect: with dark humor, like joking threats to sabotage each other by sending that secret feedback the piece mentions. But she also said that for her, personally, the article has helped to clarify some things about the company culture that have been nagging at her — specifically, that a workplace that prizes productivity above all else leaves little space for employee appreciation or recognition.

As Science of Us reported last week, the motivational power of a simple thank-you among colleagues is not to be underestimated. One London School of Economics analysis of more than 50 studies, for example, found that people tend to put more effort into their work if they feel appreciated by the people they work with — and that feeling was even more important for employee motivation than performance-based financial incentives.

More on that, and other insights into what it’s like to work at Amazon this week.

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As told to Melissa Dahl:

Everyone in my division is talking about that article — mostly, joking about it. All day on Monday, we were saying things like, Oh, I’m going to go cry at my desk now. For the record, I’ve never seen anybody cry at work. (We were also joking yesterday: Okay, we don’t get free meals or snacks — but the article didn’t mention that we do get free tissues! Perfect for all the supposed crying.)

Amazon is a huge company, and every division is different, but, at least in mine, the article hasn’t widely impacted morale — it’s been more of something to chat about, to joke about. If anything, it’s made me think my division must be pretty great, because we don’t see those extremes they talk about in the article. All that being said — this is not a place I am going to stay forever. Reading that article, it does give you a certain awareness of the company culture. Like that quote, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves” — I am not an overachiever. And no one in my division works until midnight, or gets emails or texts in the middle of the night.

But I will say that there is an almost frantic pace to get a lot done during business hours. The amount of work you produce here is far more than any other company I’ve been at. The pace is much faster, and more demanding. And it’s never enough. You can never produce enough. You’ll produce something, and it takes you months of research, and it’s always — what’s next? There are few pats on the back.

It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I think I would like to be appreciated a little more for my work. I would like to work at a company that spends 15 seconds congratulating me for a job well done, instead of the two seconds that it is now. It doesn’t have to be gushing. Just 15 seconds.

Here’s an example. I once did four months of research and analysis for a software tool that was needed for our team, and I wrote up a paper about it. (We write papers at Amazon before we present them in a meeting — six pages, single-spaced, and everything is quantified.) It was this very data-driven paper, and it went through many rounds and revisions and constructive criticisms. And then I presented it to my director, and he accepted it — meaning, he was going to fund it, so we could get this tool. And the very next question was — When are we starting? No acknowledgment of the months and months of analysis that went into picking this tool. It was just — Great, when can you build it? It’s always the next thing. Speed to market is one of our leadership principles, but it’s at the expense of acknowledging the hard work employees do. I know some people get satisfaction out of producing, and getting papers approved, and then producing more and more and more. But I think I would be more satisfied if they also included some acknowledgment.

Here, it sometimes seems like it’s not about the person — it’s about what you produce. But to me, that’s only half the picture. The other half is the human, and what they bring to the workplace: empathy, leadership skills, the ability to get the best out of your teammates, or to corral a team member when it’s necessary — these are all soft skills that matter a lot. But that human element of the workplace is not exactly quantifiable.

We are social beings in a social environment — because the workplace is a social environment — but it’s difficult to back up those soft skills with data. Data is what everything is based on here — it’s all data-driven. It’s challenging to say, Well, I was a leader on that project. How do you quantify that? You couldn’t, and if there’s not data behind it, it’s not going to be used in a review. Yes, a part of what you do at work is based on data, but some of it is based on personal skills, and how well you navigate the workplace. If people don’t trust you, they’re not going to do anything you say. Earn trust is another one of our leadership principles, but I never hear it talked about. Again, that’s not exactly quantifiable.

Maybe that’s a very female thing to say, I don’t know. But that’s an important aspect to me at work that I don’t get right now. I do enjoy the praise of my work for the two seconds that they praise it. Then it’s — move on to the next thing. It’s never enough. 

A White-Collar Amazon Worker on the Times Piece