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Why the New York Times’s Amazon story is so controversial, explained

On Sunday, the New York Times published a massive exposé of Amazon's "punishing" work culture. The company, the Times alleged, "is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable."

The anecdotes from the article are searing. "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk," said Bo Olson, who worked in Amazon's book marketing department. A woman who gave birth to a stillborn child recalled being told that "to make sure my focus stayed on my job." Other employees report emails that land after midnight and are followed by texts if a reply doesn't materialize quickly enough. The article details an internal system that allows Amazon's employees to anonymously report on each other's work habits.

The Times story, by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, is an incredible piece of reporting, boasting interviews with "more than 100 current and former Amazonians." But it's also led to a fierce backlash from inside the company — and from the tech industry more broadly.

Current Amazonians — including CEO Jeff Bezos — say the story gets basic facts about working at the company wrong and is mostly driven by the complaints of disgruntled employees who have left the organization.

But behind both the Times article and the responses to it is a larger debate about the future of high-prestige, white-collar work in America and the toll it takes on family life. This article, like many before it, is fundamentally about whether some of the most privileged, productive, and highly compensated workers in the world can have both the job they want and the life they want.

But it's important not to lose sight of a more urgent reality: As bad as white-collar workers may have it at Amazon and elsewhere, their blue-collar brethren have it much, much worse, and have much less power to negotiate better conditions.

The Times and Amazon's defenders agree, part 1: Amazon is intense

Amazon Prime Summer Soiree Hosted By Erin And Sara Foster Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Amazon

In a lengthy response on LinkedIn, Nick Ciubotariu, who works at Amazon, writes, "During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask me why emails aren’t answered. I don’t have these expectations of the managers that work for me, and if they were to do this to their Engineers, I would rectify that myself, immediately. And if these expectations were in place, and enforced upon me, I would leave."

Similarly, Jeff Bezos, in a letter to employees, writes, "I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company."

However, the more closely you read the article and the responses, the less disagreement there actually is. The Times alleges that Amazon has nurtured an exceptionally intense workplace culture where employees have the chance to change the world and get rich doing it, but have to put in nearly superhuman effort and thrive in an intensely competitive atmosphere.

Amazon's defenders don't really argue the point. For instance, read this rebuttal from Ciubotariu closely:

During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask me why emails aren’t answered.

I don't think you need to read very far between the lines to see Ciubotariu has worked a lot of weekends and a lot of nights. But he's worked them, in part, because he wants to work them. As he writes:

Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world. The hardest problems in technology, bar none, are solved at Amazon. This is why I’m here ... Our sheer size and complexity dwarfs everyone else, and not everyone is qualified to work here, or will rise to the challenge. But that doesn’t mean we’re Draconian or evil. Not everyone gets into Harvard, either, or graduates from there. Same principles apply.

When Ciubotariu says "not everyone is qualified to work here, or will rise to the challenge," it's a telling comment, and it gets to the heart of what has so angered Amazon's employees about the Times piece: They feel it's little more than a compilation of disgruntled ex-employees voicing their rationalizations for why they couldn't succeed at Amazon.

For employees who love what they're doing, are exceptionally talented at it, and find the work rewarding and even fun, Amazon is probably a great place to work — hard, sure, but worth it. But if that doesn't describe you? Then working at Amazon is a nightmare. Your bosses are asking you to do more than you're able to accomplish, in less time than you need to accomplish it, and as you fall behind, they begin questioning your work ethic and demanding ever more ridiculous displays of commitment.

And it's important to realize that this is part of Amazon's strategy. They want the people who aren't top performers to leave. But they also want the people who are top performers to stay. So they are likely to make the lives of poor performers a bit miserable, but they are also going to do everything possible to make sure the top performers feel happy and fulfilled. That's one reason it's hard to say what it's like to work at Amazon — it's different for different people. And it's also a reason top performers at Amazon are so annoyed by this article — it genuinely doesn't describe their experience.

The Times and Amazon's defenders agree, part 2: Amazon used to be even more intense

Amazon Holds News Conference

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon/Dark Lord of the Sith.

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Even Amazon's defenders agree the company's expectations were, until quite recently, pretty insane. Ciubotariu, in his piece defending Amazon, quotes an Amazon executive who said during an all-hands meeting:

Amazon used to burn a lot of people into the ground. This isn’t how we do things anymore, and it isn’t how I run my business.

"Anymore," of course, is the key word there. And who knows how far that more enlightened approach has penetrated the company?

The Times isn't revealing some big secret here. In his history of Amazon, Brad Stone reports:

While employees embraced Amazon’s newly articulated values, many resisted the breakneck pace of the work. As Amazon’s growth accelerated, Bezos drove employees even harder, calling meetings over the weekends, starting an executive book club that gathered on Saturday mornings, and often repeating his quote about working smart, hard, and long.

As a result, the company was not friendly toward families, and some executives left when they wanted to have children. "Jeff didn’t believe in work-life balance," says Kim Rachmeler. "He believed in work-life harmony. I guess the idea is you might be able to do everything all at once."

Evidence of this friction usually emerged during the question-and-answer sessions at the company’s regular all-hands meetings, held for many years at Seattle’s oldest playhouse, the Moore Theater. Employees would stand up and pose direct questions to the executive team, and often they inquired about the enormous workload and frenetic pace.

During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn’t take that well. "The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority," he answered bluntly. "That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you."

Pretty much everyone agrees Amazon has improved on this score, in part because the company simply couldn't attract and retain top talent if it didn't. And one of the probably fair criticisms of the Times piece is it relies on a lot of former Amazon employees who may be accurately reporting the conditions from their time at the company, but who may not be providing an accurate look at the current state of the company.

But how much has Amazon improved? And how broadly are those improvements distributed? That's the real question.

The Times and Amazon's defenders agree, part 3: Some horrible, unacceptable things have happened at Amazon

The most furious debate over the Times article is about some of the more brutal anecdotes relayed in the piece. Take this section:

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.

And while the worst anecdotes are anonymous, they're not all anonymous:

Motherhood can also be a liability. Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required. Mr. Ladue, who confirmed her account, said that Ms. Williamson had been directly competing with younger colleagues with fewer commitments, so he suggested she find a less demanding job at Amazon. (Both he and Ms. Williamson left the company.)

He added that he usually worked 85 or more hours a week and rarely took a vacation.

No one is really disputing that these things happened. The question is how routine they were. Amazon, after all, employs more than 150,000 people worldwide. In a company of that size, some bosses are going to be great and some bosses are going to be tyrants. And Amazon's intense work culture can feed both kinds. In a company of that scale, there will be moments of extraordinary generosity and extraordinary callousness — but it's the callousness that's likely to find its way into a reporter's notebook.

Bezos is using the article as an opportunity to reset expectations across his company:

The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

Can Amazonians have it all?

Amazon Holds News Conference Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

The Amazon exposé's clearest analogue is Anne-Marie Slaughter's viral Atlantic article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," which limned the difficulty of working a top job at the State Department while also trying to be a good parent. Slaughters records her frustration at "how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be."

Slaughter's article was the most-read piece in the Atlantic's history. The Amazon exposé, similarly, has dominated the media since it dropped. The reason both pieces hit with such force is that they speak to an anxiety that America's most privileged workers share: that their family and career ambitions are, on some level, locked in a zero-sum competition.

In his Stratechery newsletter, Ben Thompson makes a very smart point about this:

"It's hard to escape the conclusion that any company that seeks to compete on a superior user experience must push further than anyone else, and by extension, I'm not sure it's an accident that not just Amazon but also Apple is notorious for a very trying work environment and zero concept of work-life balance ... Few want to admit that progress comes at a cost, particularly when those paying the price look just like them: there is both more empathy, and, I suspect, more resentment than when the victims are poor unskilled workers."

Which brings us to Amazon's poor, unskilled workers.

The real workplace scandal: blue-collar, not white-collar, work

Warehouse Distribution Centre For Amazon Online Retailers

Amazon's distribution centers are where the real labor abuses reside.

Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

The real workplace scandal at Amazon — and in the economy writ large — isn't the treatment of white-collar workers with plenty of options. It's the treatment of blue-collar workers with none.

Most of Amazon's workers, after all, aren't highly paid engineers or marketers sitting in a Seattle office. They're contract warehouse workers rushing frantically to meet their packing quotas.

The Morning Call reported on the working conditions in these warehouses, and the result was truly horrifying:

Elmer Goris spent a year working in Amazon.com's Lehigh Valley warehouse, where books, CDs and various other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world's largest online retailer.

The 34-year-old Allentown resident, who has worked in warehouses for more than 10 years, said he quit in July because he was frustrated with the heat and demands that he work mandatory overtime. Working conditions at the warehouse got worse earlier this year, especially during summer heat waves when heat in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said.

He got light-headed, he said, and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers.

The Morning Call's report forced Amazon to add air conditioning to its warehouses. But it's not just the heat that hurts. Journalist Mac McClelland worked in one of the warehouses Amazon uses, and the combination of the pace, the conditions, the pay, and the scheduling was shocking:

By the fourth morning that I drag myself out of bed long before dawn, my self-pity has turned into actual concern. There's a screaming pain running across the back of my shoulders. "You need to take 800 milligrams of Advil a day," a woman in her late 50s or early 60s advised me when we all congregated in the break room before work. When I arrived, I stashed my lunch on a bottom ledge of the cheap metal shelving lining the break room walls, then hesitated before walking away. I cursed myself. I forgot something in the bag, but there was no way to get at it without crouching or bending over, and any extra times of doing that today were times I couldn't really afford.

The truth is that Amazon's white-collar workers can always leave. A stint at Amazon looks great on your résumé. And there are other jobs with easier hours, friendlier cultures, and gentler ambitions. But warehouse workers in rural America have few choices. If they don't like what Amazon and it subcontractors are offering, they can go on unemployment, or they can work in another terrible warehouse, or they can see what happens if they don't pay their rent.

And what's worse is that improvement in working conditions probably just means their jobs disappear faster — eventually, these warehouses will be run by robots and staffed by a few technicians around to deal with mechanical failure. The more it costs Amazon to employ humans to do rote tasks, the more it will invest in ways to replace those humans. And while the march of technology might be good for the economy as a whole, it will be a disaster for those specific workers.

So as bad as things might be for Amazon's white-collar workers, the truth is they've chosen to be at Amazon, and they have the power — through their attractiveness to other employers — to negotiate better working conditions. In that way, the conditions at Amazon HQ are interesting, and they speak to some broader anxieties in the white-collar world, but it's hard to get too upset over them.

Amazon's warehouses, though, are run much less humanely, and the pain falls on people with few options and very little economic power. And it's not just Amazon. The problem for these workers is that they have few other job opportunities, and the ones that do exist are no better.


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