Ethics Center: Business Ethics

High-Tech Cruelty: Inside Amazon’s Heartless (and Unethical) Workplace

Amazon is one of the greatest success stories in business history. But a recent New York Times article shows how it entices employees into sacrificing their personal lives in order to become  elite high-tech workers—and then subjects them to a Darwinian fight for survival. Although one might argue all firms and workers today must fight to outpace their rivals, the article shows Amazon going to extremes to wring every last bit of productivity from its people, with little or no concern for their welfare.

But don’t take our word for it. Here are some points from the article that show Amazon’s managerial cruelty in action.

  • Employees are encouraged to rip apart their colleagues’ ideas, often using a secret feedback system to tear down rivals. It also believes that workplace harmony is overvalued.
  • Amazon’s work environment is relentlessly high-pressured and brutal, leading one employee to say: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desks.”
  • The company demands total adherence to founder Jeff Bezos’ 14 leadership principles. As one employee said, “If you’re a good Amazonian, you became an Amabot”—i.e., someone who doesn’t question the system.
  • Amazon started out as a meritocracy, but along the way became a world of frequent combat and hostility as employees jostle for position and survival.
  • Bezos believes in wringing ever more output from employees without investing much in them other than a competitive salary and generous stock options. If you need further support, you can leave.
  • At one of its warehouse facilities, the company opted to let its employees collapse from heat exhaustion rather than install air conditioners. It did position ambulances at the ready to transport prostrated employees to the hospital.
  • Amazon’s cruelty was especially apparent in how it addressed the issue of work-life balance. Unlike tech firms such as Facebook and Google, Amazon provides limited employee perks and expects its workers to be available for work at virtually any time of the day or night, regardless of family status or health.
  • Supervisors at Amazon often convene marathon conference calls on Easter or Thanksgiving and expect workers to answer e-mails during vacation, late at night, or on weekends. One employee said she didn’t sleep for four days straight due to work demands.
  • What’s more, mothers who wish to cut back on their hours to care for their children are notified they are in danger of being fired because they’re not fully committed to the company.
  • Employees who get sick or need time to take care of ill family members are often punished for not being totally available for work. In one case, an employee who received high ratings for years had to cut her hours when her dad fell ill to cancer. Her supervisor gave her grief. “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness,” the employee said.
  • Another took time off to recover from thyroid cancer, but was then given a poor performance rating because her peers “accomplished a lot in her absence.” 
  • A woman miscarried twins, but was forced to immediately go on a business trip the day after returning to work.
  • A woman with breast cancer was told she was in danger of being fired because “difficulties in her personal life had interfered with her achieving her work goals.”
  • Several fathers said they left or were considering quitting Amazon because their bosses and peers pressured them to spend less time with their families.

Now, the article points out many Amazon employees are thrilled to work there. They love the challenge of “selling everything to everyone everywhere” and the opportunity to create something from nothing. And there’s no arguing with Amazon’s success. It’s America’s #1 retailer with a market value of $250 billion whose founder is now the fifth richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine.

Still, just because something is successful doesn’t mean it’s right. Clearly, Amazon has created what the New York Times calls a “self-reinforcing set of management, data, and psychological tools to spur its workers to do more and more.” And they are doing more and more. But is growth the only metric that matters? And is building a business on the backs of employees ethical? At the National Ethics Association, we say “no,” and here’s why:

  • A company doesn’t have carte blanche to exploit employees for their own purposes. There are ethical limits to what it can ask employees to do, especially when they are physically unable to contribute more.
  • A company that doesn’t respect work-life balance endangers employee health and weakens families. This is inappropriate from a public-policy perspective and is also unethical.
  • Imposing incredible demands on employees disregards the fact that humans aren’t designed to be continuous working machines. Once they deplete their stores of energy and creativity, they must be allowed to replenish them.  Circumventing this necessary process is a cruel and unusual management practice.
  • Pitting employees against each other in a dog-eat-dog competitive process is heartless and uncalled for. Worse, it’s unnecessary because well-managed employees and teams can also do great work.
  • A system that pushes employees to their limits is inherently age discriminatory, since older employees may lack the stamina to work 80+ hours per week.
  • Finally, the lack of work-life balance hits women with children especially hard. It’s highly unethical to place the pursuit of corporate profits ahead of the welfare of parents and children.

At the end of the day, the New York Times article is a chilling profile of a company that views employees as automatons to be exploited for financial gain. But this is hardly the only way to succeed in business today. A better approach? Viewing your employees as flesh-and-blood individuals and preserving essential boundaries between work and life. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll make the case for this more humane approach to achieving business success.