Pulling truth from the viral absurdity of the Amazon workplace debate

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed August 21, 2015
The New York Times' Amazon workplace deconstruction became a viral sensation. But in the process, big questions about reporting bias, tech industry job satisfaction, and work/life balance got buried.

On Saturday, August 15, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld unleashed an Internet sensation with an exposé on Amazon's workplace, Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.

The spastic virality that followed had a silver lining: it provoked an always-useful debate about work-life balance and the cultural values of tech companies in particular.

The viral surge has primarily obsessed with whether Amazon is good or bad. In the comment stampede, vital questions have been obscured:

  • Why do journalists/bloggers ignore data that would result in a more balanced view?
  • Why was Amazon singled out when many tech companies have similar workplace tradeoffs/dilemmas?
  • When we demonize employers, do we avoid the uncomfortable truth of holding individuals responsible for their life choices?
  • Is work/life balance even a realistic conversation, given that even the tech/creative class, the so-called victors of the digital economy, struggle with their chaotic work lives?

Before I peel those questions back, a mostly-chronological rundown of key pieces from this brouhaha:

Why interview 100 people but ignore online data?

Few bloggers have the resources to interview 100 people for a single story on a single company. Kantor and Streitfelt did their legwork, and it shows: the anecdotes weaved into the piece are hard-hitting ("Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.") By parsing so many interviews, their view inside Amazon carries weight.

Why then, would Kantor and Streitfelt largely ignore easily accessible data that would challenge some of their conclusions? In Amazon's Not Much Different From Other Tech Employers, Public Data Says, Read/Write was able to undermine some of Kantor and Streitfelt's themes with a quick trip to glassdoor.com.

Kantor and Streitfelt only cite a few notable pieces of survey data. One of their key points? High turnover at Amazon is a strong indicator of Amazon's workplace problems. The authors state:

Amazon insists its reputation for high attrition is misleading. A 2013 survey by PayScale, a salary analysis firm, put the median employee tenure at one year, among the briefest in the Fortune 500. Amazon officials insisted tenure was low because hiring was so robust, adding that only 15 percent of employees had been at the company more than five years. Turnover is consistent with others in the technology industry, they said, but declined to disclose any data.

Declining that request is a mistake by Amazon given that the 2013 PayScale data is widely dispersed online. At one point, the authors contrast Amazon with Google's supposedly more holistic approach:

Google and Facebook motivate 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, though, offers no pretense that catering to employees is a priority.

And yet in the PayScale report, turnover at Google is just about as high as Amazon's. Amazon is second in the Fortune 100 with a turnover of 1.0 years, but Google, with all its "whole you" rhetoric, is right behind them at a 1.1 year turnover median - despite a median salary almost $15,000 higher. Why? The authors fail to raise the question.

Glassdoor offers more interesting data. By compiling anonymous data from ex-employees, we learn that while Amazon (3.4 rating) is lower than Google (4.4) and Facebook (4.4.), it's in similar ratings territory to Yahoo (3.3) and Microsoft (3.8). Glassdoor lists work/life balance as a major "con" at Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Stats - how does Amazon stack up against other high tech employers?

I pulled a few Glassdoor stats of my own. It made sense to look at Amazon against Facebook and Google. I added Microsoft and Apple to the mix for kicks. All companies had at least 3,500 total ratings. I looked at life/work balance ratings (max five stars):

Amazon: 2.7
Google: 3.9
Facebook: 3.7
Apple: 3.3
Microsoft: 3.5

Since culture and values were a key theme of the piece, I looked at that rating too:

Amazon: 3.3
Google: 3.8
Facebook 4.4
Apple: 4.1
Microsoft: 3.6

CEO ratings from Glassdoor feedback had Bezos at 82 percent, which was a fair amount lower than Google/Facebook/Apple, who all had CEO ratings in the 95 percent range. Microsoft's CEO rating was 81 percent. "Business outlook" seems an important rating for an employer. Here Amazon was at 65 (out of 100), higher than Microsoft's 58, behind Google's 75, Facebook's 89, and Apple's 74.

"Recommend to a friend" is where rubber meets road, so I pulled those stats too:

Amazon: 81 percent
Google: 91 percent
Facebook: 89 percent
Apple: 82 percent
Microsoft: 81 percent

If I'm an Amazon executive, I see these apples-to-apples stats and think, "We can do better," particularly in the work/life balance arena. But is Amazon that far out of whack with the leading tech companies overall? It's a question the New York Times doesn't satisfactorily answer. Reading that piece, you'd think Amazon's refer-a-friend ratings would be abysmal.

I thought Bezos' memo to employees requesting input was pretty good, though he'd be well served sharing more comparative analysis of the kind I tiptoed into here. As for the very happy (and defensive) Amazon employee on LinkedIn, he made the mistake of saying he would prove the merits of his argument with data, and yet he provided only anecdotal observations to support his points, some of which are disputed in the comment thread. He neglects to confront his own confirmation bias, as evidenced by his strident denial of Amazon's gender leadership gap, despite the unavoidable fact that all 12 executives in Bezos' "S team" are male (Guardian, April 2014).

The Times piece raised issues that matter - including Amazon's lack of gender diversity on its top leadership team. But the net result of singling out Amazon and blowing a few editorial kisses to Facebook and Google is to imply that other companies are offering a much better work experience. I question that.

On Glassdoor, comments about Amazon like these this stood out: "Can be amazing for some people, horrible for others," and "Fantastic for me, but depends on the work group." Those comments ring true because they echo all the stories I hear from my friends in high tech companies, who report very different experiences based on department, project and so forth. But that's not a sexy or viral story, is it?

Amazon may be a quality of life underperformer, but we're missing a bigger truth: the white collar world is dividing into haves and have-nots. The "haves" include the so-called "creative class": sought-after tech pros, creative professionals and designers. They might not be crazy about their work/life balance and managing the persistent intrusion of their always-on mobile gadgetry, but they have career options. However, turnover will be a fact of life for most, as they will need to make pro-active changes to keep skills sharp and pay grades high. They'll have to switch jobs to get out of stale projects, and out from under bad managers.

The have-nots are increasingly becoming freelancers by necessity, leveraged by platforms that auction and distribute work in a way that provides efficiency and cost control to the supplier. The have-nots include blue collar workers threatened by automation, and those who have been compelled to participate in the so-called "sharing economy" to make ends meet. Amazon has a more serious impact on the future of work through its pioneering of automated factories than by the cultural pressure to respond to emails late at night.

Final thoughts - can work/life balance be fixed?

Which brings us back to work/life balance, and this thoughtful piece from Dustin Moskovitz, Work Hard, Live Well. Moskovitz brings the responsibility for work/life balance back to the individual. Speaking to a group of high school students, he made the classic white collar lament:

I wish I had slept more hours, and exercised regularly. I wish I had made better decisions about what to eat or drink - at times I consumed more soda and energy drinks than water. I wish I had made more time for other experiences that helped me grow incredibly quickly once I gave them a chance.

But he also turns the focus on employers - and not just Amazon (In his case, it was Facebook). He asks the leading question: would Facebook have been less successful if he had worked less? Moskovitz says no:

Actually, I believe I would have been more effective: a better leader and a more focused employee. I would have had fewer panic attacks, and acute health problems - like throwing out my back regularly in my early 20s. I would have picked fewer petty fights with my peers in the organization, because I would have been generally more centered and self-reflective. I would have been less frustrated and resentful when things went wrong, and required me to put in even more hours to deal with a local crisis. In short, I would have had more energy and spent it in smarter ways… AND I would have been happier.

It's hard to knock that argument. From a health standpoint, there's probably some data to support it. After citing some research on diminishing returns beyond a 40-50-hour workweek, Moskovitz says:

Why are companies doing this? It must be some combination of 1/ not knowing the research 2/ believing the research is somehow flawed or doesn’t apply to them (they’re wrong) or 3/ understanding that many people see these cultural artifacts as a signal about the intensity and passion of the team.

The tougher question Moskovitz doesn't answer is: how do we change this state of affairs? And that's where I have no answers - though it's worth remembering that labor unions brought us the 40 hour workweek, not Tim Ferriss. It might make a nice research project for some New York Times reporters. Meantime, it's on all of us to set our limits and fight for them. Waiting until the health problems spiral is far too late. Getting off one hamster wheel (corporate) only to find another (startup) doesn't solve it either.

Workplaces may eventually become the humane places we long for. Meantime, we can critique the shortcomings of one company, the tech industry, or the system as a whole. That doesn't change our opportunity to fight for our own balance, and the day to do that is: today.

End note: thanks to Mark Finnern for providing some context and article links for this story.

Image credit: Desperate unhappy young business woman tired of loud people © pathdoc.

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