Thursday, August 20, 2015

The White-Collar Sweatshop Redux

The only photo I could find of the reclusive Mr. Bozo.
Several outlets have pointed out that the conditions at Amazon are hardly unique to that business. Others have pointed out that it's coming for all of us:

I worked at Microsoft and I doubt that Amazon is much worse (Slate)
"______ is built, quite deliberately, to be Darwinian. The strong survive and the weak perish (metaphorically speaking) and the 'bar' is constantly increasing. The level of performance that would have been acceptable five years ago will get you canned today. It's a kind of crucible that'll help you develop a harder edge, if you can survive, that can serve you well in your career and in life, but it's often not a pleasant experience. I wouldn't recommend it as a place to work for just anyone."
Match the Employee Rant with the Tech Giant (Vocativ)
...The industry’s professed idealism is fading, and the distinction between Silicon Valley and the rest of American business has collapsed. So now the big public questions about Silicon Valley look pretty familiar because they are extensions of questions that have long existed around American corporations: of how much power one company should be allowed to have, of how much influence a company ought to have over individual choices, of how we weigh the magnificent efficiencies capitalism brings against its human brutalities. ..

The Amazon story has now already been through a couple of media cycles, and the presiding mood is calmer, less outraged than it was in the hours after it went live over the weekend. You could probably find “similar anecdotes coming from ex-employees at Goldman, Skadden, Bain, or various fast-growing startups in Silicon Valley,” wrote Alison Griswold at Slate, “and they would probably be non-stories.” (It isn’t surprising that the Amazon story would arouse vastly differing opinions within the media — a field which maybe more dramatically than any other has transitioned from a system in which prestige was a matter of craft and jobs were protected by unions, to one under which everyone’s productivity was immediately knowable in the form of clicks.) Matt Yglesias pointed out that unlike Amazon’s blue-collar workers, the executives whose abuses were detailed in the story were likely well-paid and had the option of leaving for another good job. On Twitter, Josh Barro, of the Times’ own Upshot, compared Amazon employees to triathletes: “Triathlons are, objectively, awful. And yet some people derive perverse joy from them. Who are we to argue with their life choices?” Plenty of people pointed out that working at Apple doesn’t seem like a real picnic either.

...Most people know what they think about mean bosses, and misogynistic ones. They even might know what they think about the suggestion, made by the LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, that we ought to see our relationship with our employer not as a permanent state but as a “tour of duty,” lasting a few years. But I don’t think many professionals really know what they think about the experience of a company as an aggressively monitored internal market for productivity, or how to know whether such an experience is necessary to deliver the signal corporate triumph of the Times story, in which Amazon delivers an Elsa doll to the door of a customer who could not find one anywhere in New York City in exactly 23 minutes. Which is to say, they don't know what to make of a rising vision of work in which, as Louis C.K. once put it, “everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”
The Real Reason People Find the Times’ Amazon Story So Upsetting (New York Magazine)
The most horrifying moment of my employment at Amazon was the time I was using the toilet and a coworker began talking from the stall next to me. He asked me why I had not responded to his very pressing email. I closed my eyes and pretended this wasn’t happening. What email could be so important that it could not wait five minutes for me to use the bathroom? He began tapping on the wall between our stalls, asking why I wouldn’t respond, as if inter-stall conversation should be a totally normal, not disgusting means of communication....

From then on, whenever I needed to go to the bathroom, I went to the floors occupied by the rare teams that had more women than men. Amazon Apparel, Amazon Mom, Amazon Baby—these were the places where you had a better shot of getting a free stall in the men’s room. If you were really lucky, and your timing was right, you might even get the bathroom to yourself for a moment. It was a relief from the craziness of Amazon’s corporate culture. These were the best floors.

The worst floors were the ones dominated by engineers. I regularly saw people bring their laptops into the bathroom, where they would sit on the toilet and write code. (I’ve never seen anyone clean their laptop after leaving the bathroom.) Engineers would talk to each other through stalls. On many occasions, I heard people take phone calls while mid-business. It was hard to tell if someone was groaning because it was difficult to code or difficult to poop. Another Amazon colleague once joked that this gave new meaning to the word “deploy.”
At Amazon, employees use the bathroom as an extension of the office (Vice)
One former female employee told us she got only two or three hours of sleep each night for nearly a year while working at Amazon and eventually took a stress-induced medical leave. When she returned, feeling guilty about the time away, she said human resources told her not to worry because “almost all medical leave from Amazon was for the same reason.”

Eventually she was fired from her job, and told us she sunk into depression for 18 months.

“My time after Amazon was the only time in my life I have ever suffered from depression,” she said.

The former AWS engineer suggested that stress and overwork was not an unintentional byproduct of the company culture.

“I do know people who were edged out because of their families or health needs or simply because they expressed a desire to work less overtime,” she said. “And it is deliberate: I overheard a senior manager bragging to a visitor that Amazon deliberately starves people of resources, including money and headcount, in order to force creative solutions.”
Amazon Employees React to New York Times Story (Vice)
“As someone who worked at Amazon headquarters in Seattle for over 5 years I can tell you that it is an obscenely stressful place to work. I wouldn’t wish a job at Amazon on my worst enemy. Everyone I knew was on drugs for depression, drank too much and had severe sleeping problems — forget about having any life outside of Amazon, 75-plus hour work weeks are the norm. It’s absolutely brutal. I didn’t even realize how disgustingly abusive it was until I left.” — Frmr Amzn
Amazon Workplace: Reactions (New York Times)
Amazon provides a good example of how the New Economy really works. To most of its customers, myself included, it is a wonderfully convenient Web site. But behind the New Economy front end lies a huge old-economy network of warehouses, trucks, and modestly paid workers. Amazon now employs about a hundred and fifty thousand people around the world, many of whom are temporary employees who don’t receive medical benefits or paid leave, according to media reports and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. (Full-time employees do receive benefits.) Amazon’s nickel-and-diming is hardly surprising. Its real competitor isn’t Apple or Google, or any Silicon Valley company: it is Walmart and other retailers that compete on price, have small profit margins, and pay low wages...

I don’t recall the word “exploited” being bandied about much in the dot-com era. Today, though, it crops up quite a lot. In a stinging response to the Times article, Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, reminded his readers that American private-sector unions “were originally formed as a response to exploitation by 19th century mill owners.” He added that, by “keeping a cowed workforce under the lash with non-stop pressure, bullying and psychological warfare, Bezos is the 21st century equivalent.”
Amazon and the Realities of the New Economy (The New Yorker)
In his new book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, which came out last week, business journalist Brad Stone traces the connection between Bezos’ distinctive personality traits and Amazon’s work culture and organizational ethos, which he describes as “gladiatorial” and “notoriously confrontational”.

He cites Amazon employees who “advance the theory that Bezos, like Jobs, Gates, and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, lacks empathy. As a result, he treats workers as expendable resources without taking into account their contributions. That in turn allows him to coldly allocate capital and manpower and make hyper-rational business decisions, where another executive might let emotion and personal relationships figure into the equation.”

The theory advanced by Amazon employees is borne out by data. Amazon fares the worst among global IT firms in the most important human resource metric: employee retention. The median employee tenure at Amazon is just one year—poorer than that of nearly every other big IT company, with Google, EBay, Yahoo!, Microsoft, Intel, HP and IBM all faring better.

Amazon is not an easy place to work in, and Bezos clearly doesn’t care much about personnel issues. According to Amazon employees, Stone writes, “Bezos is primarily consumed with improving the company’s performance and customer service and that personnel issues are secondary.” In this regard, Bezos is hardly exceptional as a CEO. What is worth noting is that sidelining personnel issues only becomes more difficult the greater your capacity for empathy.

I have engaged—as an employee—with half a dozen CEOs so far, spanning four different sectors. Barring one, who was also the owner of the company and not a professional CEO, I wouldn’t say any of them distinguished themselves by their empathy or great rapport with employees. They preferred to be feared and respected than to be understood or appreciated, let alone loved. Their very management style was predicated on not understanding and a reputation for being unreasonable, an approach that must be familiar to anyone who has worked closely with top management.

[Jon] Ronson argues that many of the psychopathic traits are conducive for success as a CEO. Besides lack of empathy, which is crucial, “other positive traits for psychopaths in business is need for stimulation, proneness to boredom. You want somebody who can’t sit still, who’s constantly thinking about how to better things”. He cites the famous example of ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap, the former CEO of Sunbeam, the American home appliances company, who is described by Wikipedia as “a professional downsizer” and Ronson says “seemed to enjoy firing people”.

But can one really blame individual CEOs if the economic system is rigged in a way that incentivizes psychopathic traits and rewards professionals for de-prioritizing the social dimension of doing business? In the words of the Israeli-American behavioral economist Dan Ariely, “once market norms enter, social norms leave.”

According to Ronson, “the way capitalism is structured really is a physical manifestation of the brain anomaly known as psychopathy.”
Is the capacity for empathy a weakness in a CEO? (Live Mint)
“What the New York Times reports about Amazon seems generally consistent with the ways in which institutionalized work is being reorganized all over the planet,” Jonathan Crary, a Columbia professor and author of 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, told me. He notes that “in corporations everywhere now, it is imperative that one fully internalize the demand for maximum performance regardless of the toll it might take on one’s health, family or sanity.”

That means, first and foremost, blurring the lines between work and not-work; being constantly available. As Crary tells me, “One is expected to fashion one’s existence as something perpetually flexible and adaptable to the changing and always intensifying requirements of the enterprise.” It’s why we’re waking up in the middle of the night to check work emails. It’s why Jason Merkoski, a 42-year-old Amazon engineer told the Times that “It’s as if you’ve got the C.E.O. of the company in bed with you at 3 a.m. breathing down your neck.”

Work is monopolizing our time, in part because digitization has, as has been much remarked, broken down the boundaries between the personal and professional. And it's a lot of time. “Not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but now they are also working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world,” a 2014 ABC report explained. According to BLS statistics, the average American now works 49 hours a week. Last year, Tony Schwartz, the founder of the business consulting firm the Energy Project, and Christina Porath, a professor for Georgetown’s Business School, wrote a piece for the New York Times sharing the results of their research into modern working conditions. Only 37 percent of 12,115 workers polled said they were able to balance work and home life at their current jobs.

“Demand for our time is increasingly exceeding our capacity—draining us of the energy we need to bring our skill and talent fully to life,” they wrote. “Increased competitiveness and a leaner, post-recession workforce add to the pressures. The rise of digital technology is perhaps the biggest influence, exposing us to an unprecedented flood of information and requests that we feel compelled to read and respond to at all hours of the day and night.”
Amazon’s 24/7 Hell Is the Future of Work (Vice)

It's rather sad that this is the requirement just to have a decent job in America. It's a sign of the hardening of America's heart - you make six figures, so you should just expect to work crazy hours and burnout (despite assurances that we are actually experiencing a utopia of leisure). Meanwhile we are told that it would be a grave error to raise the national minimum wage because it would cost jobs or spur automation (despite the same economists insisting that automation creates jobs). So the only way to stave off automation is to pay people low enough wages that they can't even survive? And this in a country that expects workers to pay for their health care, education and retirement out of their own pockets. The degree-ocracy, gauntlet interviews, algorithms choosing who gets hired and fired, purple squirrel candidates, refusing to hire people who've been out of work a certain length of time -- welcome to the the new normal of the wonderful world of Average Is Over.

But at least we have smart phones, huh?

Amazon Chief Says Employees Lacking Empathy Will Be Instantly Purged (New Yorker)

Jeff Bezos Assures Amazon Employees That HR Working 100 Hours A Week To Address Their Complaints


BONUS:

I haven't seen mentioned in any of these articles that Amazon's orginal name was intended to be "Relentless." Telling, isn't it?

I'm interested to hear from Nick Hanauer. Whenever I see an article arguing that oligarchs actually need to share their bountry with workers and capitalism needs to be more compassionate, it's usually by him. He made his fortune by being one of Amazon's orginal investors. I wonder how Amazon's culture squares with that notion.

If you haven't heard KMO's personal account of working at Amazon in the late nineties in response to my question, you should definitely check it out.

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