Don’t be surprised at how Amazon treats its workers

I awoke the other morning to seemingly every tech news outlet under the sun — and dozens of tech reporters on Twitter — discussing Amazon’s awful treatment of employees. And I’ll admit, my first response was akin to cynical apathy; what else could there to be to reveal about the retailer’s treatment of its employees?
Amazon has been criticized many times over the years for how it treats workers in its shipping facilities, so I assumed the chatter would be about more of the same. But this time the company is under fire for how it treats white-collar workers who, according to a report from the New York Times, might find it easier to survive in the company’s namesake rainforest than in the expanding Seattle offices where people are treated like resources to be used and discarded.
Much of the discussion about the Times report makes it seem like no-one expected Amazon’s white-collar workers to be treated poorly. Yet perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Times report is that it describes a tech company whose skilled workers are treated the same as the people in its warehouses.
Amazon has a long history of conflict with its warehouse workers. The work is grueling, unforgiving, and impersonal to a point where many non-technical workers are seen as replaceable cogs in a gigantic machine. Many workers are temporary and aren’t offered insurance, sick leave, or other types of benefits.
The Guardian reported this morning on claims made by the GMB Trade Union about the treatment of Amazon’s warehouse workers in the United Kingdom. GMB said that Amazon’s workers suffered both physical and mental illnesses because of the demanding labor and pressure to be “an above-average Amazon robot all the time.” Amazon hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.
Earlier this year, Amazon was revealed to have asked temporary workers to sign 18-month-long non-compete agreements when they were hired for a seasonal warehouse position. (The company reversed course when the agreements were revealed.) Last October, it took a case to the Supreme Court and won the right not to pay employees for time spent being searched before and after their shifts.
And, of course, there’s the infamous incident from September 2011, when workers in Pennsylvania had to work in 100-degree temperatures without air conditioning. Ambulances had to wait outside the warehouse to take employees to a hospital when — not if — they fainted or had a heat stroke. This incident is the only reference made to Amazon’s warehouse workers in the Times report.
There’s no doubt that the conditions revealed by the Times report are worrisome. Amazon seems to have created a work environment that leads to backstabbing, grandstanding, and inevitable conflicts between workers fighting to prove they shouldn’t be fired in the company’s annual culling.
Many of those same concerns are present for Amazon’s non-technical workers. No-one should be surprised that this is how Amazon treats all its employees; we’ve known warehouse workers aren’t treated well for years. Expecting white-collar workers to be treated any better than their counterparts is plain classism.
Still, the Times report is a damning piece of journalism to which Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos felt compelled to respond. “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay,” he told his employees. “I know I would leave such a company.”
Yet it’s hard to believe that Bezos didn’t know there was some level of dysfunction in Amazon’s office. The Times has said that its reporting was based on interviews with 100 former and current employees of the online retailer. A chief executive’s claim of ignorance — and a LinkedIn post from another current employee — aren’t compelling evidence against the Times’ controversial report.
Besides, this isn’t the first time strife has been reported in the offices of an Amazon company. Pando reported earlier this year about the extensive issues caused by Zappos’ adoption of holacracy, a management system so new-age and non-sensical that Google Chrome’s spell-checker doesn’t think it’s a real word. Zappos is independent of Amazon, but its mismanagement is another tally against the idea that someone knows how to manage the company’s offices.
It’s clear that many of the people who work at Amazon, whether they’re in a warehouse in the United Kingdom, the company’s headquarters in Seattle, or the Las Vegas base for one of its subsidiaries, have to work in poor conditions. By now it shouldn’t be a surprise when another report shows mismanagement or hostile conditions at another Amazon subsidiary. It’s just business as usual.

Two more key Twitter product engineers leave the company

Twitter is reorganizing once again, and with that shift, Twitter’s lead of Analytics, Adam Kinney, and VP of Engineering, Jeremy Gordon, are moving on. No word yet on where they’re heading, but CNBC reported that Kinney and Gordon quit because they didn’t agree with the executive team’s strategy for the company. It’s the latest in a long string of talent changes at Twitter, whose user growth has stagnated in recent months.

How Facebook solves the IT culture wars and scales its site

People and processes are just as important as servers when it comes to scale. A Facebook engineer explains how the social network built a culture and tools to help it keep up with its ever-expanding hardware infrastructure and software toolsets.

Do we need a line between big data and big brother?

We often laud big data when it’s capturing and storing all sorts of new data types, but would the positive tone change if we we’re talking about monitoring your every digital interaction while at work to discover questionable behavior? Cataphora CEO Elizabeth Charnock doesn’t really care.

Siri’s co-founder leaves Apple on “amicable” terms

In addition to the apparent acquisition of Yahoo’s former head of Global Data Center Infrastructure, Apple’s recent staff shifts apparently also include the departure of one of Siri’s co-founders. Don’t worry, though, the iPhone 4S’s personal assistant remains in good hands.

5 ways to keep your rockstar employees happy

Salary and benefits aren’t enough to guarantee that your best and brightest creatives will remain engaged. Rypple’s Daniel Debow presents some best practices about what does motivate your top employees and how you can keep them from going to the competition.

Verizon’s strike pits its past against its future

More than 45,000 Verizon workers are striking this morning. People are concerned about what the strike could mean for telecom equipment vendors, but a better question is how much will Verizon’s legacy employees drag down the company as it competes against more modern IT companies?

6 Tips for Keeping Your Remote Team Motivated & Happy

In last week’s post, I wrote about what it takes to become a virtual CEO, after speaking with Chris Ducker of Virtual Business Lifestyle. During our conversation, Ducker also shared his tips for keeping a virtual team happy and motivated.

Apple Lockdown: Fact or Fiction?

UPDATED: I apologize for anyone offended by the initial headline. If you’ll read the Gizmodo article referenced in the first paragraph you’ll see where this headline came from. This article is a response to the absurdity of Gizmodo’s article that implies that Apple uses Nazi-like tactics. We unequivocally disagree with what Gizmodo is implying or its references to Nazi/Gestapo tactics. Again, please do read the Gizmodo article first to put this in context.

Breaking Godwin’s Law at a sub-atomic level, incendiary Gizmodo cites an anonymous source describing how security finds leakers at Apple (s aapl), not to mention creating a pervasive atmosphere of fear and dread, referencing “Nazi” tactics by the “Gestapo.” That is, if you believe it.

Reading like something by Fake Steve Jobs—only not nearly as entertaining—Jesus Diaz relays the experience of “Tom,” a supposed current or former employee of Apple. Tom alleges that Apple has “moles,” or informants, “working everywhere, especially in departments where leaks are suspected.” When a leak is strongly suspected, members of the Team Apple World Police “Apple Worldwide Loyalty” arrive and an “operation” takes place. Read More about Apple Lockdown: Fact or Fiction?