Economy and Humanity: The High Cost of Instant Gratification
The New York Times published an in-depth look at Amazon.com’s inside work culture today.
No one can doubt Amazon’s ubiquity and success. Last month, Amazon became the most valuable retailer in the country with a valuation of 250 billion dollars. The article mentions that Amazon is trying to become the world’s first trillion dollar retailer.
This does not come without costs to Amazon’s employees though. Amazon practices something that they call “purposeful Darwinism” that sounds like it could come from a 1920s Eugenics society convention. Some of it is typical. Amazon employees are expected to work long hours and this leaves their family and friends concerned for their well-being, vacations don’t always happen in practice. There is also a culture of open complaining about the weaknesses of ideas and/or the weaknesses of co-workers. Amazon has a culture that welcomes snitching.
Other stories are much more concerning like how Amazon seemingly has no concern for the psychological well-being of their employees who have been hit by very human tragedies. This section of the article stood out to me:
A woman who had thyroid cancer was given a low performance rating after she returned from treatment. She says her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”
A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. Their accounts echoed others from workers who had suffered health crises and felt they had also been judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.
A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.
While tech is known to have trouble recruiting women, Amazon seems to be a very bad case with no women in top management positions and proudly not giving a parental leave policy even as Netflix gets praise for giving a very generous parental leave. Though not all employees benefit from Netflix’s policy.
So what does Amazon get from pushing their employees to the limit? Seemingly they and we get this:
Last August, Stephenie Landry, an operations executive, joined in discussions about how to shorten delivery times and developed an idea for rushing goods to urban customers in an hour or less. One hundred eleven days later, she was in Brooklyn directing the start of the new service, Prime Now.
“A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes,” said Ms. Landry, who was authorized by the company to speak, still sounding exhilarated months later about providing “Frozen” dolls in record time.
This raises a bunch of questions for me. Where are we as a nation and as individuals when we want instant satisfaction as consumers but also wanted humane work places when we are employees? It feels like a kind of myopia to marvel at being able to get something in 23 minutes and not wonder what is happening to those who are busting tail to get the job done (FWIW I think the woman most have lived really close to the warehouse) Does anyone need an Elsa doll delivered in 23 minutes? Is it possible to create a speedy delivery service without being needlessly cruel to employees who are suffering from cancer?
There have been several threads on OT where I wondered about why people have a seemingly psychological need to demand and morally expect more than 60 hours of work even though we know productivity drops after 50 hours worked. I am not as hardcore as others on this despite by wondering. I do get that people love what they do and want to spend a lot of time at it. I also think there are many times and professions where it is necessary to work more than 50 hours a week.
In the end, we have to ask what kind of society do we want. Do we want to be a society where we get everything instantly or where we are all treated with dignity and decency while at the work place and developing cancer is not held against us as employees. I sadly think we are picking the former option though.