The Amazon Burn and Churn

Inside Amazon describes what can only be considered a white-collar sweatshop.

Many executives might consider Amazon’s commercial success and conclude that its internal practices are therefore fit to be emulated. In a country where workplace stress costs by my calculation upwards of $1 trillion, and causes 120,000 annual deaths, that's a seriously dangerous approach.

It’s clear that Mr. Bezos (Aug. 17) himself has no idea what’s going on in his own company, or is feigning ignorance for PR purposes. However much Mr. Bezos urges employees not to step over the line (at least in front of the cameras), the incentives created by Amazon’s harsh, confrontational culture will continue to push employees towards hostile behavior. Nothing will change unless a concerted effort to change the culture is made.

But the issue goes beyond Amazon. Research suggests that only 29% of employees in the United States are engaged in their company’s mission, and a huge disconnect exists between what executives and employees see as making a culture positive. It’s entirely possible that management never intended for the culture to become so hostile, but employees responded to their incentives in ways that management failed to predict and then failed to detect.

Unsurprisingly, the article notes that the median employee tenure at Amazon is just under a year, and features quotes from former talented employees explaining that they just couldn’t stomach the oppressive culture. A negative culture is one of the top reasons cited for leaving a job, and a positive environment is the top reasons cited for accepting a new position.

Companies must think long-term

Sucking employees dry might gain strong results in the short-term, but if Amazon isn’t careful, it could go the way of other corporate titans who sacrificed all ideals in the name of quick profits.

Amazon would do well to heed the advice of former Enron CFO Andrew Fastow. He proposes a simple test to evaluate business practices and decisions: would this be acceptable if the firm was private, and my grandchildren were going to inherit it? Driving your employees into the ground and ruining lives most certainly wouldn’t pass the long-term prosperity test.

Another key takeaway from the Enron debacle: employees should always feel empowered to speak-up and raise questions about directions from superiors. At Amazon, we now know that the c-suite has created a cult-like allegiance to the 14 “Leadership Principles” used to justify many of the extreme staff management practices. How could an employee possibly feel comfortable challenging a practice derived from a document that it’s not a stretch to describe as internally sacred?

Applying the tools of pressure

If Amazon won’t understand or accept the long-term unsustainability of burning-out its employees then churning through a new batch, it might be time for some pressure to be applied on management.

The reported physical ill effects resulting from overworking (ulcers, lack of sleep) suggest that current and former employees have strong grounds to file a class action claim against Amazon. Given Amazon’s size and the apparent universality of ill-treatment among employees, HR leaders need to open their eyes to a potential torrent of PTSD cases and the legal ramifications of lawsuits they could face if they only band-aid the problem.

Extreme hours and disregard for physical and emotional well-being are precisely the conditions that gave rise to the labour movement in blue-collar workplaces. If unions can’t organize in an environment as oppressive as Amazon’s, then there’s no hope for organized labor’s continued relevancy.

It’s common for American consumers to boycott firms accused of subjecting overseas laborers to dangerous conditions, and that’s a good thing. But I think it’s time to look a little more closely at what workers at home are being subjected to – if even half of the allegations about Amazon’s employee treatment are true, then I would consider them a very worthy boycott target.