Amazon Insiders Tell the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It is Amazon week here on Gawker.com. In the past two days, we've brought you stories from workers at Amazon's warehouses and corporate offices. Today, we bring you the stories of three different insiders: positive, negative, and nasty.

We've heard from quite a few current and former Amazon employees (both office workers and warehouse workers) this week. We're going to give you one of each here, along with a defense of Amazon from a current employee.

The most interesting takeaway from all this is not what these Amazon employees disagree about, but rather the common threads that run through their descriptions of life at Amazon: a high pressure culture based on competitiveness, obsessive and ongoing measurement of employees, and a commitment to treating people as cogs in one massive, churning retail machine. We've bolded some noteworthy passages below.

From a current Amazon employee [THE GOOD]

I'm a current Amazon employee and I think the dude that wrote you that email was full of shit. This is a competitive culture and unlike companies with huge funding reserves or incredibly high margin business models, Amazon is at heart a retail company where margins are slim by the nature of our business. On account of that we need to work hard: people who can't compete are weeded out the same way they are in any other highly competitive company. Amazon's demonstrated success and explosive growth are indicative of our success in our corporate culture. It seems like this person wasn't cutting it.

That being said, what I've found from working here is that the culture is output oriented. If you are demonstrating success and getting your work done at a high level, they are actually extremely flexible about hours and I've found my quality of life here to be incredibly high. I work hard, certainly, but I also have a well balanced life and I love my job. I've also worked at Facebook and Google and this is by far the most rewarding and enjoyable job I've ever had.

From a former Amazon warehouse employee [THE GOOD AND BAD]

It was 2009/2010 and like many people I was between jobs due to the economy. My experience takes place in Whitestown, IN not too far from where I live currently. Like the original Amazon story here I too came in through Integrity Staffing. I viewed Integrity Staffing as kind of like open tryouts but where you had to possess no skills really. I was also given some general questions but really had no barrier to entry and was then asked what schedule I preferred. To prevent any in fighting between who works weekends and who doesn't everyone works either Wednesday-Saturday or Sunday-Wednesday. This creates a strange overlap on Wednesday so I'm not sure how they figured that out. During peak times (think all of November and December) most people were told to work another day on either end of their schedule. I say "told" specifically. There wasn't an option unless you didn't want to work.

Once I started working there I had selected to be a picker. In retrospect this was probably a poor decision since this is definitely the most physically demanding as you literally run around to pick items as fast as possible. While told not to run everyone does so when they can, occasionally resulting in collisions. It was considered great if you could pick 100 items per hour. This is quite the feat considering most facilities are a million square feet or more. I did that a few times when I was feeling particularly motivated or energetic, but that was the exception as opposed to the rule. I would say average picking per hour was around 70 or so. Other roles like stowers, packers, and QA have similar numbers to aim for but not quite as hardcore. I chose picking because I liked the idea of something keeping me physically fit in the dead of winter. The motivation for picking such numbers were arbitrary gift certificates or other prizes awarded for "Shift Leaders" and if you performed consistently high you could be brought on full time. It didn't take long for me to realize this was a stop on the road for me and not what I foresaw being a desirable permanent role.

Something that really surprised me was the large variety of people who started there. I met everyone from those who were aimless and just worked here seasonaly to make some money then went back to doing nothing or bouncing around between other low paying jobs to people who were highly qualified professionals. I remember specifically a 50s something guy who was a supply chain strategist and used to work at an executive level but was laid off. This created for an interesting employee pool and it was always interesting to see how people polarized and grouped in the break rooms and at the meetings. More often than not it wasn't worth trying to align yourself with anyone because your breaks could be different, they could suddenly disappear (get let go), or people would get moved around on roles as needed too.

As for the actual work it wasn't too bad. It was at it's worst when things were really busy and everyone is running around and your schedule goes from four 10 hour days to five 12 hour days. Once again, there was no choice, it was just required as your temporary role. When things were like that it was quite difficult. And your feet eventually adjusted over a few weeks to no longer be in pain. Myself personally I found it really interesting to see how things worked within the belly of the beast. While there were some older workers this is really a young man's game. If you like a bit of healthy self motivated competition and you like being physically active on the job you might actually enjoy working for Amazon. Some of the frustrating points was just the large amount of arbitrary policies and rules. Like many large companies that are reliant on a temporary work force you're basically treated like cattle (feel free to use other analogies like cogs, and things like that as well). By that I mean that there's an annoying point system that treats you all like children for being late, late with checking in and out for breaks, or other infractions. Also if you couldn't come in to work you needed to call ahead and provide a valid reason. If you claimed to be sick you needed to actually bring a doctor's note. That was particularly insulting. You also could not bring any phone or other electronic device onto the floor. These had to be left in your car outside. So you were basically on communication blackout for 10-12 hours a day, which is less than ideal. Now the reasoning for this does make sense in that someone could easily swap their own device or hide things in it, etc. So I can see it, but still a bit extreme. Why couldn't we just leave them in our bags in the breakroom?

There were a lot of inefficiencies at Amazon as well, which I found ironic considering the number driven atmosphere. Everything is based off of algorithms as for your pick paths but items are literally all over the facility. Usually the set amount of items you pick for a bin (containing anywhere from 10-30 items) were generally close to each other. But it was not unusual to literally go across the facility once or twice within a single pick list. Obviously your numbers go down when you're walk/running several hundred feet between items. And then sometimes you're working in the "big item" area where you're picking things like PS3 or other similarly sized items. Obviously only a few of those can fit in a bit whereas you could fit 30 books or CDs on other pick lists. Once you finished picking your bin you put it on a conveyer. Before doing so you had to count all items in there and make sure it checked against the list you had. This often caused a slow down. But inaccuracy is frowned even more than being slow. Basically the entire system is kind of stacked against you. Like I said for being such an efficiency based company they seem to have a heavy amount of possible human error and don't really give you a lot of ways to help you with that. Not to mention whenever a scanner gun died or had issue that would cause you time as you would have to go find a manager and switch them out. Everything was on your time when it came to bathroom breaks or anything else that might slow you down. In a way you were almost encouraged to not use the restroom or anything else since this would reduce your picks/hour rate. If you had low pick rates there were actually Integrity people who circulated that would come find you and ask you why. I generally dismissed them as I could care less what they think. They needed me for now, and I use them as long as I needed them. As time passed and I found another job I began to care less and didn't try. Eventually I was pulled aside with some other workers, brought into a small room, told how much they valued my service, and then given a small bag of chocolates, and shown the door. I did have something tasty to eat on my way home, so that was nice.

All and all my experience wasn't awful but it was less than ideal. Amazon, and it's employees, really don't care about temp workers despite some of the managers being quite nice and good at what they do. I felt overworked and underappreciated by far but like most there I needed the money and needed the job. I think Amazon knows they have you in a spot that way and mistreats or disregards you accordingly.

From a former Amazon corporate employee [THE BAD AND THE UGLY]

Amazon was, without a doubt, the worst place I ever worked. I finally left, not because I was reviewed poorly or put in a wacky situation like your last corporate poster, but because I could no longer stand seeing some of the best people I've ever worked with abused and because of their ridiculous leveling system (and refusal to promote anyone - especially women - on the business side of certain departments).

My husband got the job at Amazon first. It turns out that Amazon hires a fair number of couples, although it seems like that would lead to more circumstances like mine, where they lose two people instead of one because one gets pissed (me, in this case). I moved to Seattle without a job, and ended up getting a role at Amazon very quickly. The interview process is long and annoying, but not the end of the world. Google's is similar.

When I started, I realized that something was horribly wrong (this is common, apparently): I was hired at a low-level position, despite having 15 years of experience, a top 10 school S.B., and an MBA. I was hired at a level lower than the MBA rotations were, even though I trained them practically from day 1. Amazon's phone tool tells everyone your level, so I'd call people or be sitting a meeting and could tell the moment they saw my level next to my name, because all their cooperative behavior would evaporate. I finally left Amazon after it became clear that I would have to work 7-10 years just to get to the level at which I should have been hired.

My reviews were exemplary, but the review process is a shitshow in itself. I was told in my last review that I was too aggressive. And that I was not aggressive enough. Not sure how that's actionable feedback.

My first boss at Amazon was actually emotionally abusive. I have triggers now that I never did before. I had battered wife syndrome. You know how Amazon dealt with it? They "let" me move to a different team a month before my 1-year anniversary. My boss got to stay a manager, but I had to leave the team. All HR said to me was, "Well, you hurt his feelings too sometimes."

In my second team, I worked less than anyone else on the business side. And I worked 80 hours each week. I'd start at 5am and end at 7pm 6 days a week. This would have been hell on my marriage, but I was lucky that my spouse was doing similar work. They didn't hire anyone in the year I was with that team - at least no one except a new director (who wasn't qualified for his job on paper, although I was, interestingly enough).

So my coworkers were working 100+ hours/week (I couldn't keep up that pace - I kept getting horribly sick, and I was professionally mature enough to push back sometimes, unlike the younger people around me), and they were continuously threatened by Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs). The only people who weren't were people like me (massively underleveled, so we could exceed expectations easily) or people who were so politically evil and self-serving that I could barely stand working with them. I was also told that the only way to get ahead was to become evil, since that's how JeffB setup the company.

At that point, I'd had enough. I left exactly 2 years + 1 day after starting - the moment I wouldn't have to pay my signing bonus back. My husband left as well.

Leaving was the best decision we ever made. Last we heard, our former teams are even worse to work on. What a nightmare.

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