No Kindness at Amazon, Avoiding False Gods at Work

DCF 1.0You’ve probably read the recent New York Times article on Amazon’s corporate workplace culture and performance standards for white-collar workers. Reading it Sunday morning, after my Saturday meditation on the kindness I’ve experienced at work, made it particularly impactful. An hour later my pastor preached on this scary passage:

Look here, you rich people: Weep and groan with anguish because of all the terrible troubles ahead of you. Your wealth is rotting away, and your fine clothes are moth-eaten rags. Your gold and silver have become worthless. The very wealth you were counting on will eat away your flesh like fire. This treasure you have accumulated will stand as evidence against you on the day of judgment. For listen! Hear the cries of the field workers whom you have cheated of their pay. The wages you held back cry out against you. The cries of those who harvest your fields have reached the ears of the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.

 You have spent your years on earth in luxury, satisfying your every desire. You have fattened yourselves for the day of slaughter. You have condemned and killed innocent people, who do not resist you.  James 5:1-6

which further added to the impact, and I’m still thinking about it.

The article is intense reading, but worth it for those of us who like to think about leadership, work, faith and living an integrated life. It’s too long and too well written for me to it justice in a short summary, but here’s the bottom line: Amazon sounds like a nasty, cruel, and generally inhumane place to work. Long hours, covert criticism and backstabbing, forced annual rankings resulting in terminations of the lower ranks, and refusal to acknowledge that employees are humans with lives and needs outside of work.

Here’s just one short excerpt:

Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

You should read the whole thing.

And it’s not just the corporate HQ, white-collar workers either. Check out this story (excerpted below) of Amazon’s abuse of its warehouse workers in Allentown Pennsylvania.

Perhaps the biggest scandal in Amazon’s recent history took place at its Allentown, Pennsylvania, center during the summer of 2011. The scandal was the subject of a prizewinning series in the Allentown newspaper, the Morning Call, by its reporter Spencer Soper. The series revealed the lengths Amazon was prepared to go to keep costs down and output high and yielded a singular image of Amazon’s ruthlessness—ambulances stationed on hot days at the Amazon center to take employees suffering from heat stroke to the hospital. Despite the summer weather, there was no air-conditioning in the depot, and Amazon refused to let fresh air circulate by opening loading doors at either end of the depot—for fear of theft. Inside the plant there was no slackening of the pace, even as temperatures rose to more than 100 degrees.

On June 2, 2011, a warehouse employee contacted the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration to report that the heat index had reached 102 degrees in the warehouse and that fifteen workers had collapsed. On June 10 OSHA received a message on its complaints hotline from an emergency room doctor at the Lehigh Valley Hospital: “I’d like to report an unsafe environment with an Amazon facility in Fogelsville. . . . Several patients have come in the last couple of days with heat related injuries.”

On July 25, with temperatures in the depot reaching 110 degrees, a security guard reported to OSHA that Amazon was refusing to open garage doors to help air circulate and that he had seen two pregnant women taken to a nursing station. Calls to the local ambulance service became so frequent that for five hot days in June and July, ambulances and paramedics were stationed all day at the depot. Commenting on these developments, Vickie Mortimer, general manager of the warehouse, insisted that “the safety and welfare of our employees is our number-one priority at Amazon, and as general manager I take that responsibility seriously.” To this end, “Amazon brought 2,000 cooling bandannas which were given to every employee, and those in the dock/trailer yard received cooling vests.”

No one reading either of these two articles could remotely conclude that “the safety and welfare of our employees is our number-one priority at Amazon.” It’s obvious the organization’s priorities are elsewhere. Clearly at Amazon, performance, production, profit and prestige take priority over people. And why? Is Amazon saving lives? Relieving the suffering masses? Making the world a better place? All through a better shopping experience?

Maybe… You be the judge. Here’s another excerpt from the NYT piece:

Last August, Stephenie Landry, an operations executive, joined in discussions about how to shorten delivery times and developed an idea for rushing goods to urban customers in an hour or less. One hundred eleven days later, she was in Brooklyn directing the start of the new service, Prime Now.

“A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes,” said Ms. Landry, who was authorized by the company to speak, still sounding exhilarated months later about providing “Frozen” dolls in record time.[emphasis mine]

That becomes possible, she and others said, when everyone follows the dictates of the leadership principles. “We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need,” Ms. Landry said, “in this way that feels really futuristic and magical.”[emphasis mine]

Cool, they’ve developed a “futuristic and magical” delivery service for dolls, and they only have to mistreat 100,000 Amazon employees to make the magic happen.

I know, I know… I shouldn’t be so snarky.  It’s easy to call out others, but what’s my point? I don’t own stock in Amazon, and Jeff Bezos is probably not reading this blog. I’m not in authority over him, and he’s going to do whatever serves his gods. The question for us as leaders is what are we going to do? How do we choose to lead? How will we treat our people? Who or what will we serve?

In any business, profit is critical. Production and performance are also important, but none of them are to be worshipped above God – and God likes people! God values people. Human beings are made in his image. If you place profit above the humane and loving treatment of people, you had better rethink your priorities. Consider this,

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. 1 John 4:20-21

It’s very simple – If you don’t love people, you don’t love God. If we love and honor God, we are to love and honor people, and, if our lives are integrated, we’ll do that at work as much as in church. We can still run our businesses profitably and productively. We can still let people go when necessary, but we do it humanely. Recognizing the humanity, and the divinity, in our brothers and sisters, we can try to help them flourish at work and in life. I think a lot about how to do that at my little part of Florida Hospital, and I know our top leaders do too.

We have to think about it. It has to be intentional. You and I are subject to the same temptations as Jeff Bezos. We can also go wrong, putting profit or other worldly desires ahead of God. (Fame and fortune sound good to me!) So we must lead with humility and in the context of our discipleship, asking the Holy Spirit for guidance and letting other Christian leaders advise us and hold us accountable.

Even then of course, we will frequently go astray.  We too will treat people badly from time to time,  making selfish or self-serving decisions. Fortunately we live under grace. There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. We can freely admit our shortcomings and, hopefully, do better in the future.  We will never “get it right,” but Jesus does not expect us to get it right. He does expect us to trust him and to try to love people as he loves us.

Keep trying!

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NOTE – I’m going on vacation this weekend and taking a break from blogging.  See you Saturday August 29th. – Pete

Comments

  1. Outstanding post, Pete.