Amazon & Both Sides of the Life-Work Battle
Countless people have chimed in on the debate around corporate culture and work-life balance in response to the New York Times Post on Amazon’s “Bruising Workplace.” Workers rehashed their experiences — both positive and negative, while some pointed to other companies with similarly harsh expectations of workers. Among them, one of my favorite VC bloggers, Mark Suster, published a blog post entitled “What to Make of Amazon’s Work Practices” which both compliments and juxtaposes his recent post entitled “How the Hell Do I…Find Balance” ( a topic women are historically put on the defensive about). In regard to Amazon, he argues:
“The truth is that if you examines the most successful organizations and people in the world, you’ll find similar cultures to those outlined in the article.”
He points to Apple, Goldman Sachs, Skadden Arps, and the UC Military as examples and admits, “I’m not looking to fund people who err too much on the life side the work/life balance. Can you objectively say that you think rational investors would?”
After reading the NYT article and Bezos’ reply, I found myself reflecting on Amazon’s culture and what I know of it from the three people I’ve met who worked there. One is an executive who came from Apple and Sony. The others are young siblings who worked in the Arizona warehouse — one an ROTC grad who has completed bootcamp, the other who graduated high school with honors while caring for her mother who had breast cancer and has since died. All three left Amazon.
Suster’s post inspired deeper consideration. I also know people who have worked at rigorous investment banks and consulting firms. One grinds on as a consultant (she, like Mark, was once at Accenture), unmarried and childless in her 30s with pseudonym social media accounts. If not for her financial fears, she would admits that she would forego the lifestyle of constant travel and being on-demand around the clock.
Having done a stint in the financial sector, I can say that I witnessed and submitted to the rigors required, but saw directly how the demand to produce resulted in compromises that put families in God-awful positions (e.g. sitting in meetings hearing how not carefully crafting an insurance policy played out for families after 20+ years). The demand to churn trades and produce also contributed to the collapse of 2008. A perfect example is the widespread practice of putting people in negative amortization loans to lower their payments, then encouraging them to take out equity and buy more negatively amortized or interest-only (highly leveraged) loans for “income property.” Of course, when loans adjusted and there was no equity to refinance and peoples’ salaries had not increased, the crap hit the proverbial fan. Fortunately, I got out of this ethically compromised zone in 2007 and managed to evade the practices that would have haunted me.
Nevertheless, my life has been a dichotomy on this work-life-grind. I worked 7 days per week in high school after emancipating from foster care to support myself. I continued working to pay my own way through college foregoing the social whims of many of my peers. In my first full-time job after grad school, my efficiency and effectiveness in recruiting led to greater workload for literally everyone else in the organization, causing them to resent me. When I became a mother, I never took a day of maternity leave, and was in fact back to work while I was in the hospital, knowing that there were those who would try to sabotage me if I didn’t stay on the ball. Likewise, I took no family leave when my mother died. Fortunately, I lived only a few minutes from her home and hospital.
While I’m much more resilient than most, I recognize that as a woman — and a Black woman at that — much of what has become a normal grind for me was bred out of necessity. I’ve noticed that burning the candle at both ends reduces productivity and increases errors. The same has been shown in studies on vacation and productivity. In light of this, today, I increasingly refuse to compromise either my entrepreneurial ambitions or my role as a loving wife and mother. In the face of abominable disparity and statistics, I forge on, engineering a life of integration to the best of my ability.
Having studied the labor movement and thought considerably about the kind of work culture I want to create as a Founder, having ambulances taking fallen workers out of a warehouse without air conditioning or laborers jumping out of windows to end it all (as with workers in China building Apple products) is not the kind of legacy I want to leave. That certainly informs my business model.
Amazon is labor intensive and, while this press comes at a time when Netflix, IBM, and Microsoft are purporting to offer more flexible benefits to accommodate families, one need only look to the exclusion of Netflix DVD workers from the maternity leave policy to see that these perks are a function of class and the value of labor. In Robert Kiyosaki’s now famous Cashflow Quadrant, he differentiates between the left and right side of the quadrant.
On the left, workers are employees and self-employed, dependent on their own labor for survival. On the right, business owners and investors earn passive income. Upfront Entrepreneur in Residence, Chamillionaire, made some salient points at the Upfront Summit about this mindset in the entertainment industry and the need for celebrities to move to the right side of the quadrant.
In entertainment, we often cater to the whims and habits of stars due to power dynamics bred by the revenue they generate (the same could be true of a certain class of entrepreneurs — and even investors). But Chamillionaire points to how opportunities to invest are often left on the table when artists chase “riches not wealth.” While celebrities, the high-paid consultant, athlete, attorney, et al are technically all on the left side of the quadrant they arguably (and hopefully) generate enough income to save and invest or build businesses that generate passive income. However, for the masses of laboring Americans, this is not an option.
Maria Schriver and Oprah did a show that reveals 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck ( http://bit.ly/1Ku3M90 ). One in four households earns less than $25k per year. Half earn less than $50K. When unemployment is high and / or opportunities low, we need only look at history to find time and time again that, on the right side of the quadrant, businesses dependent on labor for margin are prone to exploitation.
This puts an additional responsibility on entrepreneurs to be thoughtful of both our business model (Zirtual comes to mind — and I’m not convinced the move to employee status was the right one) and the kind of culture we craft. A business that relies heavily on labor is going to make tradeoffs between profit and culture. Since 1979, we’ve seen that choice skyrocket in a direction that reflects a short-term view and makes our economy unsustainable. In the long term, this will be the demise of companies and economies.
Ultimately, a company’s workers are its #1 brand ambassadors. A company that doesn’t value workers is going to retain only the most desperate as the best flee after “doing their time” (arguably the case with Mark Suster leaving Accenture). Those who stay under high stress are more likely to have stress-related health challenges. Not to mention that a company with high turnover pays a price in training and hiring that has to be accounted for.
In an age of increasing social media, nefarious business practices that drop capitalism to it’s worst manifestation are not as easily swept under the rug and will ruin a brand’s reputation for not only hiring (particularly as the economy rebounds), but also consumption. While I used Amazon for the first time in quite a while to order my daughter’s birthday supplies, the recent article will color my choices in the future. Alternatives are increasingly common and even the great Amazon (which I admire in so many ways) can be unseated. One need only watch the Cesar Chavez movie to be reminded that one’s position in an industry should not be taken for granted.
As the youngest in my family, I’ve watched a number of people die, and as I furrow deeper into my second 35 hour shift (and, arguably the second half of my life), I sometimes think of the study of the 5 regrets of the dying . Number two on that list — particularly among men — is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” One of the greatest shames of our civilization is that, unfortunately, most people don’t have a choice. Exploitation and slavery in the name of unchecked capitalism is alive and well. But for those of us in position to impact the future and dictate the quality of life for the masses, we have a great responsibility on our shoulders that will inform our legacy.