retail news in context, analysis with attitude

One week after the New York Times published a long and detailed story about the "punishing" conditions endured by many Amazon employees, there continue to be a number of stories and columns assessing the issue and problems and putting them into a broader context.

Among them:

• The Wall Street Journal has a piece by Thomas H. Davenport, a professor at Babson College, in which he suggests that a big part of Amazon's public relations problems is the secrecy with which it chooses to conduct business.

"I have come to the conclusion over many years of working with and studying companies that secrecy is almost always more damaging than helpful to the companies that practice it," Davenport writes. "From a PR sense, it invites criticism; from an innovation sense, it makes a company too self-contained. Particularly when the company is highly successful and threatening to the established order of business (certainly true of Amazon), secrecy makes people suspect all sorts of dastardly behaviors."

While Google is a company as "dominant, aggressive, and ambitious" as Amazon, Davenport writes, it has been more transparent about its activities, and as a result, "I think most observers find the company a lot less threatening than they would otherwise."

Fast Company has a piece by journalist Joe Lazauskas in which he writes about why the Amazon story in the New York Times got so much attention - generating, apparently, more online comment than any other story the Times ever has run.

"What made the story of Amazon’s alleged psychological abuse of its employees so entrancing to the tech community? Anyone who's worked in the field - or in an office, for that matter - can identify with the story at some level. But I think a bigger reason for all the hubbub is the shared sense that in order to accomplish anything really spectacular, we're supposed to be working as hard as the poor Amazonians supposedly are.

"The tech industry is unmatched in its zeal to glorify those who never leave the office. The 80-hour work week is a staple that comes up in virtually every story about startups. The insinuation is always that if you’re not treating work like a frat boy treats a cooler of free Bud Light - bingeing on it relentlessly - you're failing."

"But here’s the thing," Lazauskas writes. "Bingeing on work to an extreme extent just doesn’t make sense. Research shows that work weeks that run longer than 50 hours are likely counterproductive; you get little more out of an employee who works 70 hours than one who works 50, and the extra stress burns employees out faster and leads to more turnover. In fact, that last point is something Amazon doesn't seem to dispute—it's just a part of the company's model. But that doesn't mean every company needs to adopt it to succeed. Far from it - no workplace is exempt from the laws of exponential decay, which, simply put, means that productivity drops off a cliff if you push people too hard for too long ... This week, everyone wondered what went on at Amazon, and whether to see it as a scandal or something else altogether. But we should really be wondering whether the stories we tell ourselves as an industry do more harm than good."

Fortune's piece suggests that while Amazon would like to position itself as the essential 21st century technology company - paying people well to "work on world-changing projects," but pushing them "to the breaking point in a survival-of-the-fittest climate where they tend to burn out and leave quickly" - in fact it is the "kind of workplace is based on an old-fashioned business model: that is, one that treats workers as replaceable cogs in the machine."

Fortune argues that there are three problems with this approach. One is that "people around the globe have been seeking greater well-being," with millennials "in particular is likely to pass on 'work-first' company cultures."

Second, "the same transparency trends that give job seekers visibility into companies allow consumers insight into companies. And customers increasingly care about how businesses treat employees and the broader community."

And third, "a growing raft of evidence shows that companies with workplace cultures characterized by high levels of trust in leaders, camaraderie among colleagues and pride on the job beat the competition."

The company that often is identified as one that is built to reflect these values is Google, which "is famous for great perks. But underneath those is a culture defined by in large part by caring relationships - a culture that brings out the best in people."

• The Financial Times makes a similar point: "The lesson from Amazon blows away one of the biggest lies of management. The stakeholder model pretends you can have it all — customers, shareholders and employees can all do well at the same time.
Amazon is a throwback to the old style of capitalism, in which there was a trade-off ... At Amazon, the customer wins — and the employee does not. The company may not have chosen the most morally acceptable trade-off. But it has laid bare this fact of economic life: when some win, others lose."

(The FT writer notes that when he read the original New York Times story, "it was late at night and I was sitting up in bed ordering weird lightbulbs and irregular screws, knowing they would arrive, at a discounted price, before lunch the next day.")

• Meanwhile, the Seattle Times reports that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken out a full-page newspaper ad in the Times offering to provide aid to Amazon employees there who believe they have been unfairly abused or discriminated against in the workplace.

According to the story, "Workers singled out in the ways described in the article might be able to make claims under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and a variety of federal and state laws regarding treatment of workers dealing with family issues.

"The ACLU noted that raising children and caring for sick relatives falls disproportionately on women. The ad pointed out that Amazon’s senior leadership team is exclusively male. And in a recent federal filing, Amazon disclosed that the vast majority of its technical and professional staff are men."
KC's View:
It is a fascinating discussion, and I continue to believe that the Times did businesses a favor by publishing this story, bringing workplace issues to the forefront for a lot of companies.

The ACLU offer does suggest that Amazon could have some legal issues, though I wonder how many employees would actually choose to sue; after all, in the end, they might deem it more advantageous to their careers to continue at Amazon until they're ready to leave and do bigger and better things.

I'm not one of those people who would subscribe to the Jeff Bezos credo that "if you are worried about work-life balance, you must not like your work very much." After all, the other side of that is that you actually do like your family life. I've sort of consciously constructed my career so that I could generally do the stuff I wanted to do, and on MNB, I only work with people and companies that I respect and like.

But I also have to think that there is room in the marketplace for companies where the pressure is relentless, because often (not always) that's where excellence and innovation emerge. And some people will be willing to sign on to work at such places because they'll be driven further and harder than ever before.

In other words, let's keep the discussion real.