Should L&D Professionals Boycott Amazon?

I’m an impatient, childish person, so if I order a book, umbrella, suitcase, grocery item, or beauty product, I want it right away. None of these items represents the margin between life and death—I just want them right away because I have the mindset of a five-year-old. It turns out many of us have a similar mindset about non-life-and-death items. Amazon, which prides itself on convenience and speed of delivery, is the first place many turn, rather than their local neighborhood store. That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, except it turns out there is a tremendous amount of grief that occurs to deliver the kind of service people love about Amazon. For Learning & Development professionals, that grief is especially meaningful, as it’s the grief of Amazon’s workforce.

None of the people employed by Amazon is a slave or indentured servant, and (not surprisingly) the ones who still work there say they love it, but there is still an ethical problem. Just because people let you do something to them, doesn’t mean that you should. An article in last week’s New York Times about Amazon’s workplace, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” is a case in point. The piece illustrates how this famous company often cruelly pushes its workforce to meet its product development, delivery, and financial goals.

It’s the job of Learning & Development professionals to help organizations achieve their goals by preparing, guiding, and nurturing their employees. An L&D professional also could help a company achieve its goals by using cutthroat competition and fear. If that approach were effective, and the employees voluntarily went along with it, would that be OK to you? Or would you feel it’s unethical to treat other humans that way—even if it helps the company achieve its goals?

I’m not an L&D professional, but even with my spoiled, childish, I-need-it-right-now mindset, I’m definitely not OK buying from a company that’s known to make every one of its employees cry at his or her desk at some point. Or a company that let an employee caring for her dying father know that she was being put on notice to be watched for potential poor performance. Or a company that encourages employees to criticize and tear one another down in pursuit of perfection. Amazon even has an online portal where employees are encouraged to write critical reviews of their peers. They also can write positive reviews, but with such a competitive environment, not surprisingly, many are negative.

According to the article, some employees are hesitant to bring up new ideas in meetings because of the verbal assaults they will be subjected to, and nearly all the past employees interviewed for the article say most Amazon employees are not able to last more than two years before realizing they can no longer take the abuse. It’s a place where “over-achievers go to feel bad about themselves,” the article quotes one source as saying.

There is no doubt that something is working at Amazon because of the company’s great popularity and financial success. But I wonder, in addition to the ethical questions, whether the company could be doing even better with a less abusive approach to management. There’s no way of knowing, since there’s no other management style at Amazon that’s been tried, other than the one profiled in the article. However, it’s not hard to speculate.

For one thing, wouldn’t it be better to create an atmosphere where new ideas are received warmly, rather than fiercely pounced on? No one says you need to rubber stamp every new idea that comes in, but what if the policy was to always be welcoming of new ideas, and to see how the new ideas could be built and improved upon, rather than fought? To borrow from exercises used by the Second City improvisational theater’s corporate program, Amazon’s problem is it has a “no, but” culture, rather than a “yes, and” culture. As an experiment, Amazon could play a fun game at meetings to discuss product development and potential new services. Every time an employee offers a new idea, each person who speaks next has to start their sentence with “yes, and.” This would force each meeting participant to think about how he or she could collaborate with, rather than fight, new ideas.

Poor employee retention, as we all know, is a financial and efficiency drain on organizations. It’s surprising to me that such a seemingly astute company as Amazon hasn’t figured that out yet. The article notes how recruiters in the Seattle area almost laugh at how many Amazon employees come to them asking to be moved to another company. Amazon employees and former employees apparently are a whole sub-set of job seekers unto themselves in the Seattle area. When your employees can’t stand you enough to stay longer than a couple of years, don’t you have a problem? For a company that loves efficiency, that doesn’t sound too efficient to me. Every time an employee leaves, not only do you have to spend money and time to recruit a new one, but you also have to train each of these new employees. Wouldn’t it be easier (and more rewarding) to treat your employees with respect and keep them for a longer period of time?

Amazon is fighting back by having current employees speak up on its behalf, but that’s so silly, it’s hard to take seriously. After all, what are you going to say in a national newspaper or a national TV news show if someone asks you what you think of your current boss? It also fights back by saying other companies do the same thing it does. That may be true, but that still doesn’t make it right—or ethical. How about your company? When you read The New York Times piece on Amazon, does it sound like anything you experience at your own company? If so, how do you feel about that?

The biggest question about Amazon’s treatment of employees remains an ethical one. The expression, “the end justifies the means,” comes to mind. We all love getting the things we buy after just spending a few minutes online and seeing them arrive on our doorstep the next day, but are the things we’re buying so important that it justifies treating employees the way Amazon seems to? If Amazon were in the business of delivering bodily organs to hospitals, or a serum that saved lives to remote parts of the world, I might say, “Yes, do whatever is necessary to meet your service goals.” But, in most cases, there’s nothing any of us are buying on Amazon that’s going to save anyone’s life.

There’s also not much that Amazon sells that you can’t purchase elsewhere. You may have to put on your shoes, walk or drive down the street, and buy it from (preferably) a locally owned business, but that’s not so bad, right?

Other companies I purchase from, such as Apple and some clothing retailers, have been called into question for their treatment of workers in factories overseas. But there’s a one difference between companies like Apple and Amazon: You’re not going to buy an iPhone or iPad from anyone else. But there are many, many other places to buy almost everything Amazon sells. So, that’s what I’m going to do: boycott Amazon.

As an L&D professional, do you have a responsibility to take a stand and speak out against treating employees the Amazon Way? Do you feel like you can continue buying from Amazon with a clear conscience while you promote the ideals of a respectful corporate culture?

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