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Intentional Abuse?

Why is harshness in the workplace getting so much media attention?  Is it just that the media tend to fixate on an issue until it fizzles out?  My guess is there is more to it.  For one thing, the authors of the New York Times article of August 16, 2015 on how Amazon treats its employees later reported that the piece generated more comments from readers than anything the newspaper has ever published.

People like Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, are a godsend for the media.  They are willing to express themselves without worrying about whether their points of view are politically correct.  Jeff said there was no place at Amazon for the employee abuses reported in the article, like being forced out while dealing with “cancer, miscarriages, or other personal crises” rather than receiving time to recover.  In the memo to employees where he responded to the article, he sets up a straw man.  I have to quote the sentence to hint at the context: The article “claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”  The key word there is “intentional.”  That phrasing makes it easy for him to deny that Amazon is such a workplace.  Most people would not view the portrait of management practices conveyed by the NYT article as intentionally created to abuse employees.  Instead, it is the unfortunate by-product of a driven, competitive culture where people are challenged to go beyond their limits.  Some of the treatment described, though, is a pretty harsh by-product.

We live in a driven, competitive culture.  How competitive can you be while still maintaining a basic, humane attitude toward others?

There is a real managerial dilemma here.  Take one of the 14 principles, “Insist on the Highest Standards.”  What manager would argue against seeking such standards?  I have never stood in front of a class of students and told them they should insist on mediocre standards.  But the text for this principle praises leaders who “have relentlessly high standards” and “are continually raising the bar.”  The Merriam-Webster On-Line Dictionary defines relentless as “showing or promising no abatement of severity, intensity, strength, or pace.” 

A relentless person is driven, will not take no for an answer, will not let up, and will exert intensity.  What happens when an employee is less driven?  They want to do the best job possible, but they do not want to endlessly push themselves forward.  They have read the research on stress that indicates that people who are relentless will burn out because they will not allow the mind, body, and soul-healing properties of regular rest to interfere with their work.  They have families and friends with whom they like to spend time.  Work is not the sole focus of their existence.

A clash is inevitable.  The driven manager pushes and pushes until the employee, consciously or unconsciously, says enough.  She does not respond to the 11pm email.  She does not stay late on an evening when her young son has a baseball game.  She refuses to call a colleague who just suffered a miscarriage to demand that the report be completed by noon tomorrow.  That is an indication of something less than relentless.  Is this the point when the “severity” that is part of the definition comes into play?  Is it when the manager ignores the very human condition the employee is exhibiting to say it is just not good enough?  If the manager accepts the employee’s behavior, what does he say to his manager, who is not inclined to show the same mercy to him.  It is not a long distance to a “soulless, dystopian workplace,” not because it was intentionally created, but rather because a focus on continually improved productivity places blinders on the manager, who cannot afford to see the damage done.

There is no denying the claims of many Amazon employees that they have enjoyed their jobs, many specifically because they have been pushed so far, that when they “hit the wall,” they followed the Amazon dictum to “climb the wall.”  There is a thrill to accomplishing more than you thought yourself capable of doing.  There is a sense of pride at results that are beaming off the paper.  There is a rush that makes one want to get back in there and do it again.  And there is the knowledge that the company will not let you rest on your laurels, will ask “what have you done for me lately?”  Many undoubtedly are drawn to the company because they are inspired by the description in the article by the company’s lead recruiter that it is striving “to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things.”  I can almost feel the goose bumps of gung ho-ness.  Sign me up.

Is Amazon at the lead end of the wave, as the article’s authors proclaim, that it is doing things to take advantage of technology that are setting the pace while other companies soon will be jumping to reserve their places as close to the front of the queue as possible?  “Data-driven management” has already been touted in the pages of the Harvard Business Review, the pinnacle of publications for business executives.  How far behind can the rest of the corporate world be?

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.