In the past week, we've heard from several insiders at Amazon describing the company's bizarre and sometimes exploitative workplace culture. Today, a current and a former Amazon employee expound—in detail—on how "Amazon is an amazing company. As long as you don't work here."
"Everyone is so tired, all the time"
I've been with Amazon for a little over a year and you can count my experience in the Ugly category.
This soulless machine looks down on employee work-life balance as "weak" and "uncommitted to the customer." I've got to hand it to them though. Amazon does put the customer first. Many other huge corporations make the same claim, but this company backs it up. The problem is that it comes at the expense of the employees, their health and their families. I've heard that the average employment of an Amazon corporate staffer is less than a year and a half. I am not sure if that is true, but it would not surprise me at all.
Think about how expensive it must be (financially and to their reputation, which are not so different in the long term) to lose hard-working, smart people at such a frequency. Trust, morale and institutional knowledge erode every day, only to be buoyed by the wide-eyed n00bs who start in their place. It is not long until those people get tired too, and so it goes. That approach to employee replacement cannot go forever. It is only a matter of time until the tech world runs out of smart people who believe it will be "different for me." (My theory: they bank on candidates from other countries who are not only unaware of the rumours, but who see the compensation as a windfall and don't care about the consequences.)
This company counts every single penny (to offer the best price and selection for the customer, which is admirable), but when it is all added up, running a business this way just has to be more expensive than an environment where "lifers" exist with the mental and physical fortitude to keep everyone around them motivated and serve as an aspiration. Not so here. Everyone is so tired, all the time. Dark eye circles, muttering under yawns, all. There could never be "lifers" here. Not at this pace anyway. When there are so few long-lasting employees around, it kind of goes unsaid that other smart people like you can find a better situation elsewhere and move on. You cannot help but start looking within a few months. So the proof is in the other people you see in the hallways every day. It is always "Meet Bob, he's the new Jim" and I had no idea Jim was gone. You are told all the time of really great people who leave without so much as a goodbye email. To me that's crazy and a big problem.
I've had worse jobs in my life (we all have), but I've never hated a job or a supervisor more. Does that make sense? I dread like a root canal appointment every Sunday night, knowing Monday morning is on its way. When I walk through the doors my head is ringing with regret, mind-numbing repetition, and expectations of browbeating. My expectations have never once gone ungratified.
I am doing all I can to leave as soon as possible, despite my team mates who are great and intelligent but who are just as miserable. Sad. Such a waste. As incredible as this company is, it's hard to imagine how much more powerful it could be if anyone here, more than the odd few, were happy.
I do not know one person who is happy at Amazon. They are putting their time in for the cash or their family or a new house or kids in college and then walking "as soon as I [expletive] can." Everyone has a time table for quitting. No one says, "I hope I stay here forever."
It is difficult to get a job at Amazon. Really hard. (Those descriptions of the interview day you read in the other posts are right. It is a gauntlet.) But it is much harder to want to stay. I sensed it when I came on, and I've learned since then that my hunch was right. Isn't the job of management to motivate people from every background to believe in one objective and then reward them for driving at it? It is not the job of management here, I can assure you. Their job is to demean and threaten. And that comes from the top.
So I'll be moving on as soon as I can with fond memories of those rare nights getting home before 8:00 pm. And learning from really smart, burned-out people for about 14 months. Man, there are smart people here. But they are also smart enough to know that they have been had. That is the thing with smart people, they have high expectations of their work place.
Amazon, if you want to run a corporation this way, that is great and your prerogative of course. You make millions of dollars every minute and millions of customers happy with excellent service and low prices. You do all that for myself and my friends and family as customers (though I don't think I can remain a customer for long, knowing the ways by which it is all achieved). There are no laws against asking your employees to work really hard. That is America. But you should be honest in the interview process and let people know the amount of time they will be required to put in just to keep their heads above water. You will pay a steep price someday if you do not. That is a price that will be passed on to the customer I'm sure. I hope you are be honest with yourselves when that day comes.
Amazon is an amazing company. As long as you don't work here.
That was from a current Amazon employee. In case you are wondering whether such profound dissatisfaction is a recent phenomenon, we offer you the following story from an employee who left the company eight years ago.
I've gone back and forth whether to write to you. I haven't worked at Amazon in 8 years. And that's exactly why I am writing. For many of us, you can leave the company, but it never leaves you.
I started there in 1997 and quit in 2006. I will be vague on what I did there because to be specific will identify me and I wish to remain anonymous.
The people who wrote to you and got fired probably did deserve it. You are told constantly, "This is a difficult place to work" and it is true. The people who wrote to you talking about merit based on output are also correct.
The margins are thin. And the company boasts that it does not invest in things that aren't directly beneficial to customers. It is spin that sounds positive, but those savings come at a terrible cost to employees.
You are treated as a liability, not as an asset.
During my time at Amazon, I couldn't imagine working anywhere else. There was nowhere else better: I came in during the dawn of the internet boom and there I was at ground zero. What you did for a living; what you did sitting behind your desk (all those hours) made the news. For those who seek meaning and external validation in their work—that's addictive. I did feel incredibly lucky to work there. My whole self esteem was wrapped up in my job. I imagine that the remaining top senior VPs still believe there is nowhere else to work to make the impact they do. In fact, I know this is true. It is too bad they don't know how wrong they are.
It can be a glamorous place. Celebrities of all sorts are escorted through the halls, performing in conference rooms—it is one of the few perks of a place that cuts muffins in half at company All-Hands meetings to save money. The company hires brilliant people. I will probably never work among such a concentration of intelligence and talent ever again. You are building the future of retail when you work there and every launch is an important milestone in the way people spend their money and the customer service they come to expect.
As the years passed, my responsibilities increased. I did have the flexibility to move around to learn new skills. But that sink or swim approach to management and personal development is the only one there is. I worked with a few bully bosses and it is worth mentioning that when you swim, you often swim among sharks (no offence to sharks, but you know, sharks). Doing something as honest and benign as challenging a senior manager in a group meeting, no matter how inquisitive or respectful your approach, is deemed defiant and worthy of admonishment. I never saw a bully boss curb his/her behavior or receive any sort of noticeable consultation or reprimand.
How it ends: during my last year, I asked to be moved into a position where I could manage a team. To get my feet wet, I was moved to a role where I had two direct reports. Perfect.
However, within three months of my new role, my officemate took a leave of absence. I was asked to take over (their) department as well—a very mature media line with about 7 direct reports who were all my peers.
You can guess what happened next. That person never returned from their leave of absence. I now was way over my head—triple booked with meetings every hour, all day, every day. The team basically shut me out. I shut them out. I would just shut my door staring at my to-do list paralyzed by not knowing where to start. All I did was work on spreadsheets trying to justify additional headcount which never came.
My output was no longer good enough. I was emotionally exhausted. During my time at Amazon, I gained 40 pounds and started having panic attacks. Then lost 50 pounds and was too stressed out to eat.
I went to my manager and told (them) I needed a leave of absence. I was denied it because I was too indispensable. So I informed my manager that I would therefore turn in my resignation. The leave of absence was immediately offered in response. But it was too late.
I moved to Europe after that. I couldn't work for a year. I was burned out, but there is no "burn out" at Amazon. You just devolve into an intolerable liability, and you feel that personally. I felt like a failure. At that beginning of that hiatus I thought I could never work for a corporation ever again. But I just needed to heal and I did.
I now work for Microsoft in Europe and it is a world of difference. Ask me one day what it is like to work for this corporation. This is a beautiful company that just doesn't tell its story very well. I never knew any different than Amazon until I left it. It will never leave me.
Seattle is still my home in the States and I keep my house which I rent out. It is right around the corner from the new Amazon offices. I was there for the first time in 4 years and I saw lots of Amazon people walking the streets with their badges still on. None of them smile. Most of them are locked inside their heads, walking alone, earbuds in ears. I wish I could say to all of them: you are brilliant. Your intelligence will not be wasted at Amazon, but your life might be.
Kelly Cheeseman, Amazon Corporate Communications
[If you're an Amazon employee who would like to share your story, email Hamilton@Gawker.com. Image: AP]