Thursday, 20 August 2015 23:28

Amazon, America's Dystopian Workplace

by Manuel Rodriguez

Amazon’s workplace culture is an Orwellian edifice filled with sabotage, subterfuge and fear

As a technology and retail giant and forebear to the internet’s gilded age, Amazon was founded on the marriage of relentless technological innovation to volume driven discount pricing, and has brutally and efficiently eliminated vast categories of retailers, industries and product categories along the way. The retail carnage induced by Amazon has resulted in the closing of thousands of brick-and-mortar stores and even many “category killers”, but saved American consumers untold millions throughout the years. But, in a biopic reminiscent of the Grapes of Wrath, Amazon’s post-Orwellian dystopia was laid bare in an epic piece this week by the New York Times, here.

The Time’s Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld systematically portray Amazon as a soul-crushing, often brutal workplace more akin to Orwell’s “1984” rather than an enlightened, creative twenty-first century workplace, complete with its own thought-police, doublethink, Inner Party, Outer Party and Proles. Even the headline banner within the Time’s piece suggests a highly toxic workplace environment and nineteenth century vestige rather than that of a free-wheeling, free-thinking paragon of collaborative synergy. The article notes that the “company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.”

What Kantor and Streitfeld brilliantly exposed was the amazing deception occasioned on an unsuspecting public and consumer, who for years has been accustomed to Amazon’s cheery and nearly zealous religious idolatry of its brand and image. The Land of Oz is revealed as a mere, nineteenth century sweatshop and cult, its unsuspecting victims the tens of thousands of young-ish workers, most with advanced degrees, who have been brainwashed to drink the kool-aid brewed by resident sociopath and psychopath Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO.

The Bezos minions, called “Amabots” by fellow Amazonians, are encouraged to “become one with the system”. This is eerily reminiscent of Star Trek’s dystopian Borg Collective, which enforced the complete loss of individual identity to the greater “mother ship” and its goals and objectives.

As if complete integration of identity was not itself sufficiently pathological and dysfunctional, Amazon has enlisted the ultimate clandestine workplace monitoring protocol, the Anytime Feedback Tool, Orwell-inspired employee spy software. This app is designed to facilitate and encourage constant work-place monitoring of all Amazon employees by one another, including leaders, subordinates, executives, and peers. Through this spyware, all employees are encouraged to observe each other and report any activities deemed inappropriate to meeting Amazon’s aspirational goals and objectives.

The Times summarized Amazon’s cultish hegemony over its workforce by highlighting the following:

  1. The “Leadership Principles”, 14 rules inscribed on handy, laminated cards, are corporate bromides that exhort Amazonians to excel at their tasks. The pithy, condensed phrases connote a sense of collective hubris and emotional infantilism: No. 2, “ownership”, No. 12, “deep dive”, No. 8, “bias for action”, No. 7, “think big”, No. 5, “hire and develop the best”, No. 9, “frugality”, No. 1, “customer obsession”, and No. 13, “disagree and commit”.

  2. Workforce measurement at Amazon is strictly quantitative, and mountains of statistical metrics constantly evaluate every Amazonian for performance. The Times describes an unrelenting trail of performance metrics that detail every single aspect of employee performance and job completion. These workforce performance reports might be 50 or 60 pages long, and serve as the basis for weekly or monthly employee reviews, which can entail review of thousands of numbers.

  3. Creation and implementation of a continuous employee feedback system, the Anytime Feedback Tool, through which any Amazon employee can surreptitiously, and without acknowledgment to the targeted employee, be criticized by their peers for behavior or actions deemed incompatible with Amazon’s goals and objectives.

  4. An annual employee bloodletting and lynching by management, called the Organization Level Review, where managers rank and exhaustively review the performance of their subordinates. The goal is to cull and eliminate a fixed percentage of the labor headcount at Amazon every year in order to meet employment quotas. This system, euphemistically called “rank and yank”, results in gladiatorial competition between managers to preserve their best talent while sacrificing everyone else’s subordinates. The Times describes a strategy where many supervisors prepare for these meetings like lawyers in a courtroom: armed with reams of data, paper, and statistics to defend their group’s performance while impugning the performance of competitor groups.

  5. Motherhood, sickness, children, elderly parents, cancer, and other personal obligations are all career-killers and “career-limiting-factors”.

  6. “Purposeful Darwinism” is the human resources tool of choice at Amazon, a policy of relentlessly and aggressively weeding out all but the very best performers there. Indeed, the attrition/dismissal rate is such that the average employee tenure at Amazon is only one year, which exhibits the classic sweatshop characteristics of “churn and burn”.

  7. Employees are encouraged to criticize each other constantly, openly, secretly, and thoroughly, guaranteeing that Amazon’s work environment is combative and hostile. This relentless criticism by peers is the ultimate performance metric. The Times piece chronicles the experiences of dozens of former Amazonians, who noted that peer attacks were often vicious, relentless, and petty. They describe a workplace filled with intrigue, scheming and sabotaging in the furious race to avoid being ranked at the bottom, ensuring their dismissal.

  8. The Amazon work pace is relentless, and 80 hour workweeks are expected. Working through Thanksgiving, Easter, New Years, personal vacations or other major holidays is equally common, and completely destroys any semblance of work-life balance.

Perhaps in an effort to not appear heavy-handed and biased, the Times piece, though, seemingly fails to draw conclusions from these raw anecdotes and stories, most of which were verified by other Amazonians. The Amazon workplace is an Orwellian nightmare straight from the pages of 1984. The relentless and shifting performance metrics are tools purposely designed to instill fear and constant self-flagellation into its young and malleable workforce.

If constant anxiety and self-doubt do not create sufficient impetus and urgency throughout the work week at Amazon, then unrelenting peer criticism will, no doubt, interject that urgency. Quantitative performance metrics, thousands of them, instill in the workforce a brooding dread and anxiety equivalent to physical or electronic monitoring and eavesdropping. Big brother is always watching, even when the worker is not physically at the office, as the metrics are constantly monitored and workers constantly ridiculed and belittled for not fulfilling their metric goals.

The psychological “buy-in” at Amazon requires complete submission of individual identity to the collective Borg, a buy-in so complete that individual personality characteristics must be subsumed to corporate well-being and objectives. Submission, though, requires a soulless, barren individual freed from his personal desires, goals and aspirations, and instead replaced by android-like logic and computational awareness.

In effect, the machine replaces the man. This psychological razing is a tool of manipulation, and is exhibited in the well-documented cases of Stockholm Syndrome, where the victim comes to identify with the torturer and completely replaces his inner goals and aspirations with those of the torturer to advance the torturer’s agenda.

These workplace paradigms will not result in the best and brightest remaining at Amazon, but quite the opposite. The best and brightest, indeed, will recognize Amazon for what it is, a collective, oppressive culture of enslavement and patterned thought, and defect for more enlightened organizations. The remaining workforce will ultimately behave like all cultures instilling motivation through fear: scheming and sabotaging survivors too afraid to question authority, think and behave creatively, become risk-takers, and feed creatively from the collective wisdom of highly talented and skilled individuals. When “freed” from allegiance to individual constructs, these collective Borg will instead be replaced by tortured inner souls who will have lost themselves within an autonomous, unfeeling collective that owes them no allegiance.

History has taught us that when fear becomes the primary driver of human motivation and drive, ingenuity, creativeness, true allegiance and inspiration are all sacrificed and abandoned. The imperative to merely survive replaces the imperative to succeed. The “fight or flight” dynamic is triggered, and the individual becomes merely reactive rather than proactive, robotic rather than inspired.

Most of the best and brightest will have long since departed, likely suffering some form of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of having worked at Amazon. Corporate platitudes and rituals are, at best, primitive tools of collective organizations requiring creative allegiance and discipline, and will stop attracting the very types of workers it currently hopes to cull through fear and authoritarianism.

Amazon, which has never truly made money from most of its varied business models, is hoping to bootstrap income through employee self-sacrifice and Orwellian motivation. If it succeeds, many large organizations and corporations may look to implement this authoritarian model, forever dooming American labor. If it fails, Amazon will become an impressive case study and analysis in business schools in 2065.

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