It’s A Wonderful Miserable Life

There’s been a lot of discussion about the New York Times’s expose on the miserable work life at Amazon.com’s corporate HQ. We’ve long known that working at one of Amazon’s warehouses sucks, but it appears their white collar workers are also overworked, driven to exhaustion, and subjected to sadistic “Hunger Games”-style culling exercises, all of which makes working for Amazon HQ a dehumanizing, demeaning experience:

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 that 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.”)

[….]

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.

This is the kind of stuff that gives Libertarian types such massive hard-ons. It fulfills all of their narcissistic fantasies about success being the undeniable product of hard work and rugged individualism, that everyone gets where they are by these virtues, no one gets a handout from anyone, certainly not the government, yada yada. Except, of course, that this impossible standard a) isn’t true and b) makes for a miserable life.

“One time I didn’t sleep for four days straight,” said Dina Vaccari, who joined in 2008 to sell Amazon gift cards to other companies and once used her own money, without asking for approval, to pay a freelancer in India to enter data so she could get more done. “These businesses were my babies, and I did whatever I could to make them successful.”

Umm, no, honey. These businesses weren’t your babies. They were Jeff Bezos’ babies, you fool. They were Amazon shareholders’ babies. If they were your babies you’d reap 100% of the reward for all of this effort. Instead you spent your personal money to hire someone in India, fer crissakes, to “get more done.” You, my friend, are a class A sucker.

There are numerous horror stories: an employee with thyroid cancer who got a low performance rating after returning from treatment because,

[…] her manager explained that while she was out, her peers were accomplishing a great deal. Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. Their accounts echoed others from workers who had suffered health crises and felt they had also been judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.

Even worse is the modern-day “company store”-coercion Amazon has created to keep what employees do stay on:

Amazon retains new workers in part by requiring them to repay a 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. (Many tech companies are racing to top one another’s family leave policies — Netflix just began offering up to a year of paid parental leave. Amazon, though, offers no paid paternity leave.)

This is not an attractive work environment for anyone who is not a masochist, and a stupid masochist, at that. Because while we Americans pride ourselves on our hard work, it’s hard to imagine anyone subjecting themselves to this kind of abuse for someone else’s company. And let’s be clear: nobody is curing cancer here. Or as the Times brutally noted,

For all of the employees who are edged out, many others flee, exhausted or unwilling to further endure the hardships for the cause of delivering swim goggles and rolls of Scotch tape to customers just a little quicker.

Ouch.

I like to compare this with the Danish work culture’s arbejdsglaede (literally, “happiness at work”), as detailed in Helen Russell’s fascinating book, The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country. British journalist Russell relocated to rural Denmark when her husband got a job at toymaker Lego, based in Jutland. In Chapter 2, she tells of her surprise when her husband came home from work at 3:30 pm — and earlier on Fridays:

‘Most people with kids had cleared their desks to go and pick them up from school or daycare by 3pm.’
Three?
‘Uhuh.”
‘Everyone just leaves work really early? No one competes to be the last one at their desk? Or gets takeout to pull an all-nighter?’
He shrugs: ‘Not that I’ve seen.’

In fact, showy displays of an aggressive work ethic are actually frowned upon. Too many late-night or weekend emails and your boss might worry that things aren’t okay at home. Or you’ll be reprimanded for fostering an uncooperative work environment, focusing too much on your own ego and not thinking about the needs of the group. It’s a complete reverse of Amazon’s corporate culture, even if some of the outer trappings look the same (sustainable buildings, healthy cafeteria menu offerings, stand-up desks, etc.) But Danes are a family-oriented people: time spent with children and family is as valued in the Danish culture as time spent at work.

And there it is. The difference is in what you value. If your culture only values material things like profits and high salaries, then Amazon will seem like a great place to emulate. If your culture values things like time spent with family and balancing work with personal life, then Lego is a work culture worth copying.

I used to work in a high-stress corporate job. It wasn’t as cut-throat as Amazon but it was almost as bad. Vacations were seen as a personal weakness. Weekends were for wusses. I remember my boss yelling at me because I couldn’t make it to Clarksville during the February 1994 ice storm because I-24 was closed. I left that job a few months later.

As one gets older they realize that life’s too short for sadistic workplace bullshit. The hypercompetitive self-flagellation places like Amazon demand of their employees might be fine for a recent college grad, but anyone over a certain age has to wonder what’s the point of all these long hours and lack of a personal life. In the service of what — Jeff Bezos’ dream of getting the latest Elsa doll somewhere in 20 minutes? There’s definitely more to life than that.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “It’s A Wonderful Miserable Life

  1. Those news stories about Bezos making 5 billion dollars in one day just got a lot darker.

  2. Kathleen

    It’s revealing how Bezos and his cult define “success” as the willingness to punish cancer patients because they can’t reduce the delivery time for cat litter to 12 seconds.

  3. That’s so messed up. Thank you for sharing this info. I thought the owner of Amazon, the one who started the company , is a good person with excellent work ethic. He was Ophras’ favorite guest.

  4. Shutter

    The more money and power libertarians and their conservative running dogs get, the more they abuse. They never got the kindergarten message that sharing is good so they morphed into callous self-centered asswipes who would cut off ambulance service to their dying grandmother and then brag about the profits while kicking her corpse into the grave.

  5. But hey, Bezos has his Vanity Clock, so it’s all good…

    ~>X[

  6. The truly sad part is that all those hours probably aren’t producing any more real work than they’d get from a shorter workweek. People actually need rest to be productive, so hours that deny them rest are counterproductive. Yeah, an occasional long day may be necessary, but doing them regularly winds up hurting productivity rather than helping it. That’s a big reason that employers were willing to accept shorter workweeks; they got about the same amount of work out of their employees in a 40 hour week that that they did from a 60 hour week. Forcing people to work 80 hours a week regularly will likely result in getting less actual work out of them than you’d get from 40 hour weeks.

    • You’re exactly right. That’s the entire basis of the Danish philosophy, in fact. People need rest to be healthy, happy, productive, creative, innovative, etc. But Bezos and his fellow clowns seem to feel like unless someone is being punished, they just don’t deserve the rewards of having a career. Fucking psychopaths.

    • Katydid

      I agree with you. Early in my career, I fell into the mistake of thinking that working really, really hard would prove my loyalty to the company, and in turn, they’d be loyal to me. Several 100-hour weeks later, they let me go with zero notice because at $9/hr (for a 40-hour week; not all the uncompensated overtime I’d been putting in), I was “too expensive” and the boss wanted to upgrade the in-home theater at his beach house (this sounds unbelievable as I type this, but I swear it’s true) and figured cutting my $9/hr in favor of an $7.50/hr employee would get him that extra he needed. Lesson learned; I was never that stupid again.

  7. “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”

    ― Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

  8. On Behalf of MJS writing for his The Opinuary Column, who posted this on Jesus’ General years ago:

    The Opinion “The heart and soul of a country are under the dominion of its most cynical, manipulative power brokers” has died, having been struck by the smallest beam of illumination, the cleansing light of self-reflection. True, the “heart and soul” of the abstraction known as “Real America” is often up for grabs among the hucksters, demagogues and snake oil salesmen who exploit it for all its worth, but for the time being the grab is too weak, too desperate, too unhinged. The FOX may be in the hen house, but seeing as how he is dangerously exposed it is possible he will be pecked to death. At the very least his gonads could be gored.

    The Opinion was born and raised in the land of unfettered rapaciousness, where it lived as it pleased and took whatever it wanted. It built the dream and stained the bed, and did it cheaply with slave labor, before and after the War Between the States. It proclaimed the exceptionalism of America, editing out the parts it didn’t cotton to, until a time came when ignoring the demon only put more fire in the belly, fire that nearly destroyed the entire nation. What was sold as freedom was bought in caskets and misery, and many a family wept itself to sleep.

    In our time, the Opinion has been bought and paid for by those who live as royalty, who wave the flag and their checkbooks in unison, a blur of patriotism and profit. Take heart: there are still those who feel the nation has a purpose beyond gaining mere capital and power, a purpose as an experiment in justice and democratic rule so powerful that the possibilities and potential of all could be vouchsafed, if only as the faintest of hopes in our common dream of democracy. It was in this myth that the greatest power of America lay, for though the advance was slow it was dedicated, though it was outspent it was not denied, though it was shouted down it would not stay silent. The greatest myth of all, the one beginning with We hold these truths to be self evident, survived regardless of the thorough malevolence of its adversaries, and endures as a wise reminder, the brassiet brass ring of all. It is always there, waiting.

    A nation’s creation mythology is important for a time, but like all myths must eventually be discarded and replaced by something that smacks of reality, of objective accounting, and ultimately of reckoning. Here in America, where the center cannot hold any more than anywhere else in the Universe, the violence that haunts us will still play out, the passion of fear-based belief will still pitch its fits to deny our common humanity, but the ground of what is in the collective gut and heart has been planted with a new crop, a new seed, a new dawn. That seed is you, dear Reader, every single day of your life. Every day that you, a free citizen, consult with your own core, the very essence of your being, and discover anew what is radiantly clear: that tin-horn saints and charlatans, however much they proclaim their patriotism, are still the scoundrels [replaces that Glenn Beck is a malignant, meretricious nutjob and Sarah Palin is a human whoopie cushion] — every day that you renew those truths to yourself is a very good day indeed.

    In lieu of flowers the family of the deceased Opinion will continue to spend millions and millions of dollars upon lobbyists and media to thwart, befuddle and bludgeon you and yours into a permanently submissive state, except when it suits their purposes for you to march and kill and that sort of thing. I suggest that you be wild instead. Be difficult. Be alive.

    ++++

    http://mortaljive.blogspot.ca/2009_11_01_archive.html

  9. Bob Fischer

    Oddly enough, these are the sort of circumstances that will bring the union back to the workplace. Organize and stick together people!