Exposé on Amazon’s workplace ‘really hits close to home’

Amazon? I don’t know about you, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve bought something from the online retailer.

Once I needed a copy of Jim Lynch’s “Truth Like the Sun,” a snappy throwback of a novel about Seattle during the 1962 World’s Fair. I had read it, but couldn’t find a new copy in a nearby bookstore for a Christmas gift. I clicked on Amazon, and a couple days later it was on my porch.

It’s convenient, but I don’t shop Amazon much because I don’t want to contribute to the extinction of bookstores and other real-life retailers.

I thought about my almost-never relationship with Amazon while reading a New York Times article published over the weekend. “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” is the headline on the story by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld.

Along with Lynch’s book, I highly recommend the Amazon article. A warning, though. It’s longer than long, and quite dispiriting. My Facebook friends have been posting it, one with the comment: “Ouch. Great read, but it hits really close to home.” It does, and not because most of us have ever worked for Amazon.

The reporters interviewed more than 100 current or former Amazon employees. “Amazonians,” some named and others speaking anonymously, are quoted about work weeks of 80-plus hours; workers reduced to tears by harsh criticism; expectations that email sent after midnight be promptly answered; “marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving;” and managers deciding the fates of workers in a process some call “rank and yank.”

The most chilling accounts involve the reported treatment of workers who had experienced tough times in their personal lives: one woman receiving a low performance rating after returning from thyroid cancer treatment; another, who had miscarried twins, traveling for business the day after surgery and being told by a boss “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done.”

Wow, right?

If the story is one-sided, Amazon leadership had a hand in that. According to the article, the company declined requests for interviews with Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive. Bezos is responding now.

In a memo to Amazon employees, published on the GeekWire website and elsewhere, Bezos wrote that “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know.” He said that anyone working for a company as ruthless as the one The Times describes would be “crazy to stay” — easy to say for somebody listed by Forbes as being worth $34.8 billion.

We’re in Snohomish County, so why write about a corporate culture on Seattle’s South Lake Union? I think the article hit home far beyond Amazon because — to a lesser degree, sure — lots of us have work lives no one saw coming a generation ago.

Do you check email on vacation? Do you even have time for a vacation? Are you ever on call, expected to be available during your off time? Have you been called into work on a holiday? By Monday, are you already behind? I’m guessing many of you can say yes, yes and yes.

An official at a local nonprofit told me last week that an annual fund-raising event had been cancelled because no one has time for lunch anymore. Time magazine kicked off June with a cover story titled “Who Killed Summer Vacation?”

Teacher, nurse, tech wizard, whatever your job, work isn’t getting any easier. Technology we once imagined would lighten our burden has given us more to do.

The New York Times talks about Amazon being data-driven, and about performance being measured continuously. Herald news staff members get daily emailed reports of “Most Read Stories,” complete with numbers of online views. It’s a small example of how we have more information about our jobs — but it’s information that brings pressures, at least self-imposed ones, that didn’t exist in the past.

I’m not losing sleep over Amazon workers, but it’s not just their plight. In a way, we’re all becoming Amazonians. Are you happy with your work-life balance? Is anybody?

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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