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17 August 2015

Is Amazon the Worst Employer in Tech?

Written by Jamie Derrick

The New York Times published an article on Saturday that paints a picture of life working for Amazon that many would consider as their idea of hell. With reports of astronomical pressure to outperform colleagues, employees suffering miscarriages or cancer being managed out of the company, pressure to spend little time with family and ruthless workforce culls, it’s little wonder the article has created a storm in the tech world.

Read the article for yourself here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

So how much truth can we take from the article? Well let’s not all go jumping to conclusions based on the writings of one article. After all, you cannot believe everything you read in the press as viewpoints are often skewed to a particular bias or agenda. We cannot deny that a sensationalist article that takes aim at an organisation we all know and use is going to sell newspapers or get people reading the article online and potentially clicking on adverts and therefore generating revenue. Ironically, when I read the article there were five identical AdChoices adverts for an SSD hard disk from none other than Amazon (I happened to be looking to buy one a few days back).

It would be easy to believe there are some elements of truth in the article. Who remembers the undercover BBC Panorama report on Amazon’s Swansea warehouse back in 2013? It showed pickers using handheld devices that collected huge quantities of data on workers performance and utilise countdown timers used to push pickers to pick items faster. There were many criticisms from this report about Amazon’s treatment of warehouse pickers so Amazon are no strangers to the media accusing them of ill-treatment of workers. Watch it here:

To my mind there is a very interesting recurring theme here that can be used to explain both Amazon’s success and controversy - using data to improve every aspect of the organisation’s operations. From the performance of the pickers on the warehouse floor to the league tables of performance of head office staff which allegedly leads to large annual culls of those at the bottom of the tables.

Collecting data on absolutely everything, analysing it and then making decisions based upon it can be hugely beneficial to your business. It is the difference between sticking a finger in the air or basing your decision on hard facts and with modern technology you can apply the same tactics to every last part of your operations from the effect the brand of tea you provide has on productivity to the most profitable product in your inventory. But how far is too far?

The criticisms of Amazon seem to me to be mostly related to applying these techniques of using data to human activities and then making sometimes harsh decisions which directly affect staff. The danger of this is it may remove empathy from the process and turns employees into numbers and data rather than people. This could create a feeling of disconnect between staff and management and a constant feeling of fear that could destroy morale in the process.

But this is unchartered territory. Our ability to collect and process data has exploded at an enormous rate and applying it in a way that directly affects employees in this way is very new.

Maybe this is the future way of managing staff, we’ll all get used to it and productivity will increase as a result. The UK could do with a productivity boost for sure. Maybe Amazon are taking this too far. Either way, data is changing the way we work.

This is by no means the end of the experiment and Amazon and other organisations will continue fine tuning the way they use data to improve productivity for years to come. No doubt Amazon are using data to analyse how they use data. Presumably the next step is to use data to analyse the data that is analysing the data.

In answer to the title of this blog post, no, Amazon are not the worst employers in tech. They haven’t yet had to install nets to stop their employees committing suicide as certain mobile phone component manufacturers in China are alleged to have done. But they are certainly pushing the boundaries of using data to decide on the fate of their employees.

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