Amazon and the Value of a Human Being

I rarely, if ever, write posts that are directed towards a specific news story or company. I tend to stick with my own stuff. This week, I’m going to make an exception in this case and step into the wilderness of click bait and trending stories. Also, this one will be a little longer than usual and it’s kind of disjointed. You’ve been warned.

So here we go…

Amazon

I’ve read roughly 10 articles and numerous comments about the Amazon NYT story published on August 15th, some affirmations, and some rebuttals, but my initial reaction hasn’t changed. I wanted to give it a few days. I felt it was only fair to see if there was more to the story and to give the company a chance to respond. Maybe, just maybe, the New York times had missed something important. I don’t think they did. They may not have the full picture and much of the evidence is anecdotal, but as the saying goes, “where there is smoke there’s fire”.

A Little Background

I’m an Amazon customer. I’ve used their service for many years. In fact, I use it so much I became a prime member a few years ago. I was impressed with the innovation, product breadth and speed they brought to the marketplace and loved the fact that I now had fewer reasons to drive to and wander around Wally World, or any other store for that matter. I didn’t know much about how the company operated on the inside or the culture. I figured at worst it was more or less an average workplace that made some effort to take care of employees while driving for business success.

A couple of years ago my son got a temporary job at an Amazon warehouse over the holidays. I thought that was pretty cool. Good company, great opportunity for a young guy getting started in the world. His description of the grueling job, burned out employees, long hours and difficult demands I chalked up to the holiday rush. “Good for you”, I thought, “tough experiences will help make you stronger”. He quit as soon as the holidays were over.

Then my stepson began working as a temp at a different Amazon warehouse. This time there was no holiday rush involved. He held on for a few months, even moving from temp to a full-time employee. He was not as outspoken about the work challenges and seemed to be hanging in there, though he occasionally mentioned that he felt stressed to meet the tough productivity goals and that his supervisor regularly reprimanded him for small mistakes. Then one day he just quit.

When he came home, he said he just couldn’t take it anymore. He was in tears both for feeling that he was letting us down and due to having finally reached the breaking point in his job. The pressure was making him physically ill and he was constantly worried about not meeting his stats which he said were often sabotaged by unrealistic zone assignments, poor management decisions and lack of organization.

But no worries, fresh batches of new temps were rolling in every day to replace the people who leave. Only the exceptionally strong, (and maybe desperate), survive. He felt that he was neither. I started to wonder what was going on but, again, decided to chalk it up to youth, inexperience and misunderstanding. Surely it can’t be that bad.

Over time, a few more articles and stories about Amazon working conditions caught my attention but I took them as isolated incidents in a very large company. Nothing out of the ordinary in Corporate America. Then the article came out and I was both shocked and curious. How could this be? Why would a company choose this type of culture or working conditions?

The Fundamental Question

“Purposeful Darwinism”

Is it necessary to relentlessly cull the herd? Must we treat the organization, (and the real people inside), as an experiment in “the survival of the fittest” in order to compete in a hyper-demanding world against smaller, more agile competitors?

Some will say yes. And I do see their point. It is one very plausible and rational world view and it does work, at least for a while. Just look at the results. Exponential growth, mind-boggling innovation, data-driven, mass retail success on an epic scale.

One can definitely argue that Amazon, despite the questions about the culture, is doing some things right.

Some have called this the future of the workplace.

If it is, I’ll pass.

So here is my fundamental question…

What is a human being worth?

I don’t mean net worth though Mr. Bezos would top most people on the planet in that category.

I don’t mean salary.

I don’t mean skills or competency or productivity.

I mean the person looking you in the eye.

The person with a family, friends, love, sorrow, dreams and music in their soul.

That person who is hoping that this job, this work will bring them closer to a better life.

And life is short.

What is this LIFE worth?

At Amazon, it appears, not much.

Maybe that’s the case far too often in our brave, new world.

People are units, positions, or, as in this scenario, they are data.

For me, this is the bottom line:

No matter how great a company claims to be, no matter how much they accomplish, if they purposefully diminish our humanity, destroy the planet on which we live and spend these borrowed lives in the blind pursuit of economic success and greedy, personal ambition then they ultimately failed the human race.

Yes, there is some objective rationale behind what Amazon, and other companies claim is the tough culture necessary to achieve their goals. But Is it worth the price?

Is it not possible to be demanding and compassionate? Tough and respectful? To use data and emotion? To challenge people to be their best and allow them some time to catch their breath? To hire a few people who aren’t the best of the best of the best and teach them to succeed?

I don’t see this as an either / or.

It’s a business. It will end someday no matter what you do. Maybe some people lose the perspective of time. Of the reality that everything they build or accomplish is only temporary. Maybe they’ve got a little bit of Pharaoh in them. Building pyramids on the backs of spent workers so that they can create a huge monument to themselves. But that’s another topic.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Not every company has an underlying product or service that directly contributes to the betterment of society. Despite a vast array of products, services, and amazing delivery systems, I would put Amazon in this category. Getting us more stuff we probably don’t really need, faster than ever before isn’t my definition of a noble cause.

But every company has a chance to make the world better by creating a workplace where we can make our lives better. When we invest in the hearts and minds of people and care about what matters to them, they are inspired to give back, not out of fear but out of appreciation, connection and a desire to contribute to a greater purpose. They bring renewed energy to work and build healthy, positive relationships.

When it really clicks, they pay that experience forward into our families and communities. We create a virtuous cycle that puts positive energy back into the world instead of consuming people as temporary resources and casting them aside.

Is it really possible to get the best out of people for whom so little is left? We may get their best effort but are we getting the best of who they are? Stress, debate, and difficulty are admittedly powerful sources of imagination, creativity, and accomplishment. But so are commitment, love, faith, passion, purpose, and community, without all the unpleasant side effects.

Yes, work can be demanding, stressful and the competition is tough. All the more reason to create a work environment where human energy is not consumed by fear, pressure and unhealthy conflict. People will rise to the challenge, they always have. The difference in the long term, is how you go about generating that belief and commitment.

OK, enough.

This probably reads more like a rant than a serious discussion and given the late hour I’m not going to spend a lot of time proofreading. I’d be interested in your thoughts if you were able to make it through this rambling discourse. Please share in the comment section below. I feel like I could have written much more. This opens up so many points of discussion and it’s such a complex topic I feel I barely scratched the surface. Material for another day I suppose.

I’ll be paying attention to what happens next. If this proves to be the real Amazon story and nothing changes, I’ll be canceling my Prime membership and finding other outlets for my purchasing. Even if I have to drive to Wally World and wait a little longer for my roll of duct tape.

Image credit: Alexey Bednij

Originally published at soul2work.com on August 19, 2015.

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