I have been waiting to see the piece that recently appeared in the New York Times by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld. It’s a doozie. The reporters interviewed a number of former Amazon employees, who paint a picture of a workplace out of a dystopian movie. The workload is unbearable, people cry at their desks (and this isn’t algebra!), the culture invites rudeness and hypercritical remarks, and anyone who doesn’t succeed (in part by destroying other people) get shown to the door. We have already heard before about how Amazon treats its warehouse employees, but now it’s the white-collar staff that are the victims. Add this to Amazon’s ruthless trading practices (do you know any publisher that is not intimidated by Amazon’s power?) and you have a picture of a rogue company. Successful, you bet; growing, to be sure; innovative, of course; but is this the future of work?
The Internet conversation about the piece in the Times is proceeding as expected, with people taking all sides of the argument. Interestingly, Jeff Bezos felt obliged to issue a memo to the staff in which he says he doesn’t recognize the company described in the Times piece (you can see the entire memo here).
Bezos’s statement was promptly satirized in a hilarious piece by Andy Borowitz, which you really must read. Borowitz’s conceit is that Amazon mandates that anyone who is not acting compassionately to their fellow employees will be fired the next day.
And then there is a thoughtful piece at Pando, which insists that we will soon be forced to choose between the hard-charging culture of the tech industry and the more humanistic values that we may privately prefer. I don’t know if we have to choose — I don’t know if we have a choice — but the point is well taken: At what point do we stand up and say, We don’t want to live this way?
I had my personal falling-out with Amazon several years ago when it was clear that Amazon would stop at nothing to avoid paying sales taxes. Those are the taxes, of course, that pay for such things as public libraries and schools. Bezos’s claim that the company shouldn’t pay the taxes because they don’t use the services takes a very narrow view of what it means to “use” services. Amazon depends on ISPs (regulated by government) to reach its customers, transportation industries (regulated by government) to ship its products, schools (regulated by government) to teach people to read the books Amazon sells. I have had to accept the fact that Bezos and I just don’t see the world the same way
Sometimes it’s necessary to pinch yourself and be reminded that Amazon started out as a bookstore. From a bookstore to global domination: what an astonishing career. But it does not seem out of place to ask if this is where we want to go. Is the point of our lives to build the best companies or is the point that we want great companies to enrich our lives?