White collar “athletes”

Photo credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Photo credit: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Living in the Pacific Northwest in the smaller of the two big PNW cities, we’re always looking up to our neighbors in the Seattle area where tech behemoths Microsoft and Amazon live. We’ve heard lots about what it’s like to work at Microsoft, but not much about Amazon. Check out the recent NY Times article about Amazon here.

Reprimanding employees who recover from cancer or who suffer miscarriages? Encouraging employees to anonymously evaluate their peers? Pressuring workers to spend less time with their families? It sounds absolutely brutal. It’s significant that the article mentions that Amazon is pushing the boundary on how it treats “white collar” workers. Everything the article says is true: white collar people usually don’t like being treated like this, and for the most part, they aren’t. But in Amazon’s case it’s not an oversight–this kind of culture is intentional. In the company’s philosophy, only the fittest and most dedicated need survive.

Amazon, though, offers no pretense that catering to employees is a priority. Compensation is considered competitive — successful midlevel managers can collect the equivalent of an extra salary from grants of a stock that has increased more than tenfold since 2008. But workers are expected to embrace “frugality” (No. 9), from the bare-bones desks to the cellphones and travel expenses that they often pay themselves. (No daily free food buffets or regular snack supplies, either.) The focus is on relentless striving to please customers, or “customer obsession” (No. 1), with words like “mission” used to describe lightning-quick delivery of Cocoa Krispies or selfie sticks.

As the company has grown, Mr. Bezos has become more committed to his original ideas, viewing them in almost moral terms, those who have worked closely with him say. “My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture,” Mr. Bezos said last year at a conference run by Business Insider, a web publication in which he is an investor.

According to the article, the entire corporate culture is driven by data. You’re evaluated by a number or numbers. Results are based on numbers. According to former employee Jason Merkoski:

“The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

Here’s what I found particularly interesting: at Amazon, ideal employees are referred to as “athletes.”

On this blog, we’ve spoken about what makes a good employee. I’ve usually taken a utilitarian approach–if you’re more productive, then you’re a better employee. I generally believe in judging people primarily by results, with some exceptions of course. In terms of “athletes,” society generally judges athletes only by results. The boxing world champion doesn’t get paid if he misses a fight–people would laugh at him if he demanded paid paternity leave. If the top sprinter in the world got sick or became injury prone, he’d win fewer races and make less money, and no one would care to hear why–they’d only care about his results. By this measure, it looks like Amazon employees really are “athletes.”

But a key difference is that most real athletes make tons of money, often millions a year. If someone laughs at them for demanding paternity leave or taking time off to care for a sick relative, it’s not so much of an issue since they can retire and live off the tons of money they’ve made. People don’t see it as that much of an issue since money is power, and most athletes who make the news have made lots of money. This is not the case with most Amazon employees. While those at the top of the Amazon hierarchy are making more money than most athletes, most “Amazonians” are just normal people like you and me. Are they being exploited? Or should they be educated enough to know that they have other options (Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and just about anywhere else). It’s also true that unlike most sports, Amazon skills are transferable to a tech career at another company. An NBA star who gets injured and fired doesn’t have much to fall back on, while an “Amazonian” programmer who gets edged out can easily get a job at another company.

Using myself as an example, I’ve got kids with whom I spend lots of time. Modern cultural wisdom says that Amazon would benefit from my experience raising kids, that I’d make a better employee because of my work-life balance. But does that make sense? If my almost 40-year-old self is planning to work 50 hours a week, is it really possible to argue that I’d make a better employee than some 22-year-old kid with no mortgage, no kids or other obligations, and lots of young “athletic” energy that he’s willing to give Amazon at a rate of 70 or 80 hours a week? Certainly I could point to my work experience, but for most people at my stage in life, family has to come first. It’s simply not fair to your kids if you make them a non-priority. On the other hand, it’s not Amazon’s problem either.

Is there something repugnant about the Amazon culture? Or is it simply a different way of creating an employer-employee culture?

One thought on “White collar “athletes”

  1. Mr. Bozo’s absolutely correct: if you don’t like it then leave. However, it was relatively tough during “the Great Recession that was actually a depression in denial by the Feds who manipulates fuzzy numbers” and people hunkered down in fear of losing jobs.

    White collar workers don’t get treated like scum? Byron, have you worked for Asian bosses at all, especially Indian and Taiwanese ones? lol

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