Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Steering clear of a “bruising” workplace

The big news over the weekend was The New York Times  hatchet-piece* take down of Amazon’s “bruising” workplace.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.”

This sounds like pretty standard fare for a lot of companies where you give up your life in exchange for an opportunity to hit the big corporate piñata and have millions of dollars rain down on your head. Yes, expecting an email to be answered at midnight is ridiculous – people really are entitled to have a do-not-disturb period - but that’s the way it is in a lot of places. If you don’t want to answer those “mission critical” (hah!) texts, go work someplace where giving and receiving them is not part of the culture.

And even before the advent of email and texting, there were plenty of high stress/high reward workplaces – investment banking and management consulting come to mind. After business school (Stanford MBA), a friend of mine worked at Morgan Stanley. He was visiting us over a long weekend when he remembered that he’d left an important paper out on his desk. He called a colleague he knew would be there and asked her to put the document in a drawer. She (Wharton MBA) refused, telling him if he wanted it in a drawer, he could put it there himself. My friend ended up heading back to NYC on the next train. This was 35 years ago. Plus ça change

The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

I don’t care what the potential rewards might be, I wouldn’t want to work in a place that, Stasi-like, encourages secret feedback. An extension, I suppose, of some of the crappier aspects of social media. I’m all for 360 degree reviews, but I’m not enamored of anonymity. A couple of times during my career, I worked with others to separate people who were truly destructive in their positions, from those positions. In both cases, we tried to go directly to the folks we couldn’t stand working under to get them to improve. In one situation, when that failed, we tried to get one of the fellow’s peers to approach him. In both cases, we ended up going to HR to make our case why the person needed to go.

So I get why there are times when, for the greater good, you need to rat someone else. It’s just that there’s something unsettling about anonymous corporate fragging.

I understand that there are times when, and environments where, conditions are so awful that employees would be at risk if they raised their hand. Thus, there is a need for some whistle-blower protections. But, as a rule, open is better than closed.

Another knock against Amazon is that Amazonians are so beaten up that seeing people weeping at their desks is the norm. No doubt because they’re exhausted from answering all those midnight emails. Again, I’m feeling kind of ‘if you can’t stand the heat’ about this.

Me, I wouldn’t want to work at a place that was a perpetual ‘bring-grown-men-to-tears-athon.” So I didn’t.

I did have a couple of crying jags at work over the years –  when I was completely frazzled and exhausted – but it was never the norm.

There were certainly a few anecdotes that made Amazon sound truly dreadful. Here’s one:

Another employee who miscarried twins left for a business trip the day after she had surgery. “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” she said her boss told her. “From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you.”

Certainly, that manager was a colossally callous a-hole. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the corporate standard.

And Amazon takes the decimation approach: rank all employees and get rid of the bottom dwellers each year.

This is a management technique that I really despise, given that it can be administered so arbitrarily. All groups may be asked to eliminate their bottom 10 percent. The problem is, one group may, in fact, have all pretty good performers, while another may be riddled with laggards. Does it make any sense to treat them all the same. (I don’t know how Amazon does it, but I did work for a company that tried this once. We refused to give them individual group lists, insisting that, if they were going to do this sort of head-hunting, they needed to do so at a more macro level.)

Not surprisingly, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos counter-punched.

The truth, no doubt, is in the middle: Amazon is a high-energy, high-stress, high-achievement, high-reward workplace that’s not for everybody. It wouldn’t have been for me.

Sure, they should do something about the managers who have no understanding of how to treat a woman who just miscarried, or a man who just came back from cancer treatment. No one wants to own that work environment. 

But there are a lot of people who thrive in the hard-driven places, or who want it on their résumé that they were intelligent enough to get hired to work among the best and the brightest. Amazon, like Google and a few other places, has a real cachet.

Not for me, but let those who want it have at it.
*Perhaps the writers used an Estwing E24A Sportsman’s Hatchet, $34.97 through Amazon.

1 comment:

Frederick Wright said...

The sad part is that this toxic, abusive work culture doesn't actually correlate to higher profits or better performance. I've worked at some of the highest performing companies in the world, including one which has garnered the very highest Revenue Per Employee rating for six years running. The key to high performance is reducing turnover, retaining invaluable institutional knowledge, and hiring correctly at the beginning. Not in treating your employees like slaves.