Swallows and Amazons

You may have missed it, but the New York Times published an “exposé” of the culture and working practices at online retailer Amazon at the weekend. If you did miss it, then you can find it here. It’s caused quite a furore, with lots of condemnation of Amazon, and company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos having to issue a formal statement in response.

I don’t know anything at all about Amazon’s working conditions and culture. However I can spot emotively manipulative journalism when I see it, and the fact it’s in what is apparently America’s “newspaper of record” doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Let’s leave aside all the “they texted me on Thanksgiving Day” “I saw grown men cry daily*” “I was criticised for having poor wi-fi on holiday” stuff which may be true incidents but are simply anecdotal evidence (*As an aside, presumably women crying at work every day would not be worth reporting since, as we all know, they are over-emotional little creatures). Let’s look instead at the managerial and HR practices that are criticised.

  1. They have leadership values and (shock, horror) actually use them in management and recruitment, rather than leave them as nice words stuck behind a reception desk, where of course they should be.
  2. They encourage feedback from all sections of the workforce on performance. Other companies call this 360 degree appraisal and use it a lot.
  3. They want contributions from all members of staff and expect challenge, regardless of position
  4. They use data to inform their business decisions
  5. They work long hours
  6. They use performance rankings to dismiss staff they deem to be poor performers
  7. Poor performance is managed by performance improvement plans (which according to the article is “Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’”. In a similar vein, the Daily Mail once informed its readers that cloud storage was “not an actual cloud”)

Points 1-4 would be considered as good practice by most HR professionals. If anything the NYT article shows that we should be alive to the ways to which even “good practices” can lead to negative consequences. 5 and 6 are both poor practices but aren’t exclusive to Amazon in any way (even if again, Amazon apparently take them to an extreme). While 7 is again a fairly normal managerial practice in most companies – not an Amazon exclusive “secret code”.

Amazon may have very poor working conditions and an aggressive, over competitive management style. So do many other companies. They may have high turnover and many disgruntled ex-employees. So do many other companies. I’m certainly not defending either the company or poor HR. But why single them out? The old journalistic adage is “follow the money”. The New York Times’s major rival as a “newspaper of record” is The Washington Post. Who owns The Washington Post? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

5 thoughts on “Swallows and Amazons

  1. The voice of reason as ever Simon. Like you I don’t have enough to really formulate opinion. This isn’t the first time we’ve had Amazon “in the dock” over “inhumane” practices (Dresden and even Dunfermline) so I think there’s some truth in this. Over zealous maybe, inhuman perhaps not. Like you say, many companies do what Amazon does. We’re all buying from them and love the pace, range and costs so does that come at a price and are we willing to put aside potential “tax avoidance” and the likes or do we make ourselves complicit in what is, a modern retail phenomenon at any cost to others? Marketplace has clearly given Amazon huge reach and smaller sellers exposure through Amazon’s ubiquity. Server space appears to be everyone’s choice to jump on an Amazon host. Then we call out this as shocking.

    I’ll share an anecdote from someone whose son works for them. When it’s someone’s birthday Amazon order Krispy Kremes for the entire office. At their expense. They also provided him with generous development so he could acquire skills and programming brilliance and he still works there yet he’s had offer on offer to leave. He says it’s a tough culture but there’s a real sense of camaraderie – and he’s even met Jeff and says he’s an inspiring if somewhat enigmatic individual. He loves working there and so do all his colleagues.

    What to believe huh? I feel there’s a hard edge to Amazon, but then people were saying that about Microsoft under Balmer, Apple under Jobs. I think you pays your money (or earns your money) and takes your choice. No-one forces anyone to work anywhere and whilst leaving might be a wrench and a risk, not if the reported incidents are hourly if not daily occurrences there, are they worth it.

    Like you said, NYTimes and Washington Post rivalry explains some of this perhaps but then who owns the media gets us in a whole different discussion.

    I reckon we – as a profession – have responsibility to take this and learn; maybe Amazon will become a more humane organisation and maybe we’ll take our purchases elsewhere if we feel we cannot be complicit in something we don’t feel is right. Pardon the pun but maybe Amazon’s past its prime as a machine like organisation and needs to learn from this itself and that no organisation – whatever the size and media clout – is above reprise and suspicion over less than human ways of working.

    Perhaps Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos could swap notes on running multi-billion dollar enterprises?

    Great thought provoking post Simon – thanks for putting an alternative view out there.

  2. I think the point here is being missed in that HRM was initial sold as a renaissance of caring Capitalism. A complete reversal from F. W. Taylor’s Scientific Management approach in which work was boring, tedious and physically exploitative ruled over by overbearing employers and managers. One apparently would not treat a dog like that.

    What HRM has transpired or morphed into is a work regime that even Mr. Taylor would be proud of but still masked by an insistence that HR is employee friendly.

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