Amazon pushes workplace boundaries
The e-commerce firm is conducting an experiment in how far it can push workers to get them to achieve its growing ambitions
Seattle: On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.
They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar”—the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards the company boasts are “unreasonably high”. The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)
Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years. The company’s winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff—“purposeful Darwinism”, one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.
Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.
“This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy,” said Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you are shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”
Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you will see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
Thanks in part to its ability to extract the most from employees, Amazon is stronger than ever. Its swelling campus is transforming a swathe of this city, a 10 million sq. ft bet that tens of thousands of new workers will be able to sell everything to everyone everywhere. Last month, it eclipsed Wal-Mart as the most valuable retailer in the US, with a market valuation of $250 billion, and Forbes deemed Bezos the fifth-wealthiest person on earth.
Tens of millions of Americans know Amazon as customers, but life inside its corporate offices is largely a mystery. Secrecy is required; even low-level employees sign a lengthy confidentiality agreement. The company authorized only a handful of senior managers to talk to reporters for this article, declining requests for interviews with Bezos and his top leaders.
However, more than 100 current and former Amazonians—members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch—described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.
In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits. Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learned in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.
“A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,” said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, The Amazon Way.
On a recent morning, as Amazon’s new hires waited to begin orientation, few of them seemed to appreciate the experiment in which they had enrolled. Only one, Keith Ketzle, a freckled Texan triathlete with an MBA, lit up with recognition, explaining how he left his old, lumbering company for a faster, grittier one.
“Conflict brings about innovation,” he said.
Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you are a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.
The process begins when Amazon’s legions of recruiters identify thousands of job prospects each year, who face extra screening by “bar raisers”, star employees and part-time interviewers charged with ensuring that only the best are hired.
Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay part of their signing bonus if they leave within a year, and a portion of their hefty relocation fees if they leave within two years. Several fathers said they left or were considering quitting because of pressure from bosses or peers to spend less time with their families.
In interviews, 40-year-old men were convinced Amazon would replace them with 30-year-olds who could put in more hours, and 30-year-olds were sure that the company preferred to hire 20-somethings who would outwork them. After Max Shipley, a father of two young children, left this spring, he wondered if Amazon would “bring in college kids who have fewer commitments, who are single, who have more time to focus on work”. Shipley is 25.
Amazon insists its reputation for high attrition is misleading. A 2013 survey by PayScale, a salary analysis firm, put the median employee tenure at one year, among the briefest in the Fortune 500.
Amazon officials insisted tenure was low because hiring was so robust, adding that only 15% of employees had been at the company more than five years. Turnover is consistent with others in the technology industry, they said, but declined to disclose any data.
Employees, human resources executives and recruiters describe a steady exodus. “The pattern of burn and churn at Amazon, resulting in a disproportionate number of candidates from Amazon showing at our doorstep, is clear and consistent,” Nimrod Hoofien, a director of engineering at Facebook and an Amazon veteran, said in a recent Facebook post.
Those departures are not a failure of the system, many current and former employees say, but rather the logical conclusion: mass intake of new workers, who help the Amazon machine spin and then wear out, leaving the most committed Amazonians to survive.
“Amazon is OK with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars,” said Vijay Ravindran, who worked at the retailer for seven years, the last two as the manager overseeing the checkout technology. “They keep the stars by offering a combination of incredible opportunities and incredible compensation. It’s like panning for gold.”
The employees who stream from the Amazon exits are highly desirable because of their work ethic, local recruiters say. In recent years, companies like Facebook and LinkedIn have opened large Seattle offices, and they benefit from the Amazon outflow.
Recruiters, though, also say that other businesses are sometimes cautious about bringing in Amazon workers, because they have been trained to be so combative. The derisive local nickname for Amazon employees is “Amholes”—pugnacious and work-obsessed.
Call them what you will, their ranks are rapidly increasing. Amazon is finishing a 37-floor office tower near its South Lake Union campus and building another tower next to it. It plans a third next to that and has space for two more high-rises. By the time the dust settles in three years, Amazon will have enough space for 50,000 employees or so, more than triple what it had as recently as 2013.
Those new workers will strive to make Amazon the first trillion-dollar retailer. Maybe it will happen. But the retailer is showing some strain from its rapid growth. Even for entry-level jobs, it is hiring on the East Coast, and many employees are required to hand over all their contacts to company recruiters at “LinkedIn” parties. In Seattle alone, more than 4,500 jobs are open, including one for an analyst specializing in “high-volume hiring”.
Some companies, faced with such an overwhelming need for new bodies, might scale back their ambitions or soften their message. Not Amazon. In a recent recruiting video, one young woman warns: “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.”
©2015/The New York Times
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