Toxic it may be, but there’s more to Amazon than that

Although I haven’t been too kind to Jeff Bezos’ empire in the past, I still personally use Amazon more than I do any other retailer.

So, the New York Times’ report about what it’s like to work at Amazon caught my eye this week. It’s a long-form piece that dissects how employees have experienced being employed at the largest retailer in the United States. Amazon is so successful, getting an inside-look at exactly what happens inside the machine seems to be a great learning moment. Amazon is about as evil as any company can be, and it would be beneficial to simply deconstruct its work practices, but I’m choosing a different angle today. What can I learn from its success, even in its moment of being knocked off the ledge? I didn’t look to deeply for faith in the article, Amazon seems to be void of any, but I think this write-up tells of more than its wickedness.

Here a few thoughts I took from this article:

  • For the Times, a jab at Amazon is a jab at their biggest competitor. The New York Times has an interest in criticizing Amazon. Although one might think that the two companies are not direct competitors, Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post, which is one of the New York Times’ main competitors. Capitalism always rears its ugly head, it seems, and there is often an economic angle to a news story.
  • Amazon keeps its eye on the ball. Amazon is amazingly successful. It grows each year and every single decision it makes is focused on its common goal. It is a heavily data-driven company, managed almost exclusively by the numbers. Employees are ranked according to their effectiveness and are eliminated when they aren’t effective. The New York Times paints a picture of zero empathy. Turnover for each employee is between one and five years, and the employees compete with one another to keep their jobs. This intensely high-pressure (and I would say immoral) work environment, where adults regularly cry at their desks, seems has yet to have consequences on the company’s success. But one wonders, what it does to the executives’ souls?
  • If its customers aren’t happy, no one is. The company is “customer obsessed.” It knows that its main job is to satisfy the consumer. I can actually attest to its fairly good customer service, in fact (compared to the non-existent service of Google or the conflictive relationship I have with Comcast). However, it does not choose to take care of its employees with the same obsession (or even pay attention to its competitors with the same commitment, either)—it assumes that the employees will be self-sufficient, in fact, holding them to “unreasonably high” standards. The Times quotes Bezos saying that working at Microsoft is like being at a country club; and contrasts Amazon’s strict work environment (“frugality” is one of its principles too),with Google and Facebook who “employees with gyms, meals and benefits, like cash handouts for new parents, ‘designed to take care of the whole you,’ as Google puts it.”
  • Amazon understands the importance of culture-making. Bezos and his leaders are in the business of culture-making. Their workers are called “Amazonians.” Perhaps the thing I was most impressed about when I read this scathing article was the importance of developing culture. Amazon has a list of leadership principles that are very informative to me. Honestly, I think it’s a good list (if not rather narcissistic). The Times says Bezos sees his principles in “moral” terms, even. The employees know them and they also tend to live by them. It isn’t fluff, it’s real. In fact, after reviewing them, it is not surprising that the article found out what it did—everything seems to be based on what its core principles are.
  • Amazon favors 20-somethings, and still doesn’t know what to do when they get older. Once people start having kids and building families, in their 30s and 40s, Amazon loses some of their intensity and often times those employees (who are ranked based on their performance), get fired. In a particularly heart-breaking story in the article, a women, suffering with breast cancer, was fired because her performance declined. The Times reports a similar story about a new mother.
  • After being criticized, Bezos kept leading. The dude got shellacked by the New York Times (one narcissistic organization punching another, it seems). He wrote a letter to his employees trying to mitigate damage-control, which The Onion (saying HR was working 100 a week to make sure these problems were fixed) and the New Yorker (quipping that employees who are insensitive will be “purged”) quickly turned into a satire pieces. Asking for employee feedback if they’ve heard stories, one woman wrote an open letter to the man telling him that Amazon forced her husband into therapy.

It’s unclear if this expose will change how Amazon operates, if it will affect its sales or its success at all. Amazon is one of the earliest Internet leaders that is still alive. (Remember AOL, Yahoo, Excited, Lycos, Netscape? Even eBay is falling behind.)

Apparently, it wasn’t news to many people how terrible is was to work at Amazon. One person came out and said that “Amazon was the most toxic work environment” he has ever seen. But it still moves forward, its train running over everyone in its path. I suppose you have to respect that kind of resolve and drive.

Though there are things a church planters and leaders can learn from Amazon and its intensity (I hope I outlined a few above), one truly has to ask himself the same question Jesus did: what does it profit you to gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul? Bezos may be close to gaining the whole world, but what vacuum is left inside of him?

We have things to learn from Amazon, but I don’t want to forfeit my souls in the process. Michael Hyatt is a good article about why Amazon’s culture doesn’t work. (Also, JR Woodward offered a good response too–h/t Aaron Foltz.) God cares about all of us—we love him with our whole selves, our “soul, strength, mind” and “heart.” He has a mission, but so much of that mission has to do with his workers, too. He loves us. Our work for him transforms us, it doesn’t just cause us to resent him. Our success, even, is revolutionary (and not just because drones deliver our books now).

I’ve been told I am a goal-oriented person, but the goals that God gave me are in deep-contrast to the metrical goals of Amazon, the data-driven ones that have to do with the material of this world. Like the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” I want to work tirelessly with you to that end.

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