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Fording the Amazon

On ‘Rockstars’, corporate culture, and what it means to have a Great Career

Article by Ben Feuer.  Photo by Valeriy Osipov. 

    A week ago, my wife met an elderly black woman on the subway sitting next to a Chinese man with Down’s syndrome.  My wife, assuming the woman was a professional home aide, asked her how she liked her job.  “Oh, I’m not his caretaker,” the woman replied.  “We’re going to a flashmob together”.  This woman devoted several hours every week to escorting the young man, an acquaintance, around to fun events.  He was challenging charge — he blurted out loud, confused statements and was sometimes physically aggressive — but she clearly enjoyed it.  “I can handle him,” she said with pride.

    Almost everyone else in the world seems to understand that work is just a small part of a great life – Americans, however, cling stubbornly to the peculiar and hard-headed belief that our country can and should be run in much the same way as, say, one might optimize the delivery a Frozen “Elsa” doll — efficiently, impersonally and uncompromisingly.

    That, of course, is a not-so-veiled reference to Amazon.com.  A recent must-read Times Magazine article exposes the company’s metric-driven hiring and management practices.  It describes a culture of backstabbing and suspicion, eighty-hour work weeks, midnight text messages demanding responses and little tolerance for those struggling with illness or injury.  Nor is this the first time we’ve heard this about Amazon – complaints about the company stretch back for years.

    But let’s be clear, Amazon is neither the worst nor the only offender in this regard.  Another recent Times article points out that so-called “big law” firms have been doing this kind of thing for years, and it shows no sign of letting up anytime soon.  So even though I’m talking about Amazon in this post, I’m not *just* talking about Amazon.

    In the article, Amazon HR says they’re after a team of ‘rockstars’, ambitious, brilliant powerhouses.  In case you’re a little hazy on the definition of this term, a rockstar is a technical savant, a hard-driving (usually) young white princeling with the right credentials, smart enough to know it all but not quite smart enough to know better.  Drunk on a newfound sense of power and agency (and blind to how narrow their particular beam of light really is) they’re usually too immature to have any clue as to why others might not be able to match their particular brand of industry, and so they run around demanding everyone else match their pace, style and volume.

    Not so great to share an office with, but awesome to manage, right?  From a numbers standpoint, if each rockstar is, say, 35 percent more efficient than the average employee, a team of them should be 35 percent more efficient than the average team, right?  Actually, you might not want to count your chickens just yet. The research on this point indicates just the opposite — not everyone wants to be or should be a ‘rockstar’, even at Amazon, and getting a full night’s sleep and trusting (and building relationships with) your team over months or years contributes more to quality of work than any individual effort. 

    Overconfident ‘rockstar’ employees (and executives) can also lead their teams on wild goose chases if they are too locked-in to a particular vision of a project – certain recent Amazon failures come to mind. That pesky little thing called reality notwithstanding, the idea of the ‘super-employee’ is too sexy (and too flattering to founders) to possibly pass up, and so the vicious cycle continues.

    Can Amazon really be as bad as the Times article makes it out to be?  Probably not quite – many employees and ex-employees have since chimed in and said their experience at Amazon was nothing like this (apparently, the better managed teams at Amazon are largely insulated from the chaos and maintain more normal hours and culture).  But there is certainly more than a little truth in what these employees are saying, since many more workers have now echoed the article’s claims.  In one particularly telling Times comment, a man described placing a negative review on a product after it shipped late and receiving a desperate call from an Amazon employee begging him to take it down — “You have no idea how much trouble this comment is causing us!”  We do now.

    Even Bezos didn’t counter the Times’s case with data (his favorite fetish).  Instead, he fell back on anecdotes.  “The amazon he knows” isn’t like this.  Furthermore, if the Amazon YOU know does sound like this … well, there’s the door.  You hear this kind of free market argument a lot when people are defending businesses.  They have a point – a disproportionate number of Amazonians do leave, as the Times article mentions.  But people with cancer and expecting mothers often can’t afford to sacrifice their employer-linked health insurance on the altar of rugged individualism, and vulnerable populations are the prey at Amazon, not young healthy bucks with nothing better to do than cram themselves into Hermann Miller chairs for 80 hours a week.  Mr. Bezos is quoted in the article as saying that maintaining Amazon’s culture is his primary job responsibility at this point in time — if all of these ‘anomalies’ come as news to him, perhaps he needs to check his Anytime Feedback Tool more often. 

    The real question is this; will Amazon be our new normal, or are we, as Americans, going to demand a counterbalancing force to corporations in the hiring process?  Since unions are mostly dead, and since we all know the federal government isn’t going to do anything, we worker bees have little to no protection left … except our voices. But our voices are more powerful than we realize.  We can— many millenials ARE — choosing to prioritize lifestyle over salary, balance over bonuses.  If we speak as one, employers will listen, particularly tech companies, whose lifeblood is innovation and creativity.

    We have power as consumers too, even though we don’t always exercise it.  Personally, I think that since Amazon is using its ‘customer obsession’ (rule #1) as a justification to smash its own employees, I think we should let them know, as customers, just how we feel about that.  How fortunate, then, that they have a review system.  Perhaps that shiny new Fire HD Tablet they’re advertising on their front page would be good forum to deposit our feelings? 

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