Amazon has been “exposed” by the New York Times as “a bruising workplace” where employees are driven by callous managers to compete against their co-workers and work grueling hours, at the cost of their health, family and personal lives—to squeeze everything out of them so that Amazon can maximize profits. Comments in response to the article, full of moral outrage, vow to boycott Amazon for such worker exploitation and urge others do the same. Should we heed them? The answer is ‘no.’ Let’s examine why.

The first questions to ask are: Why is Amazon under attack? And how objective is the NYT article? Amazon is being attacked because of its success. It has just surpassed Wal-Mart as the world’s largest retailer by market capitalization, with its shares trading for over US$ 500. Success breeds envy and therefore attracts attackers. Amazon’s success and its line of business, online retail of everything, also makes is very visible, and therefore a convenient target for anti-business and anti-free market critics, such as the NYT.

To assess the objectivity of the New York Times article, we must observe some facts. First, the NYT has a long history of leftist, anti-business slant in its editorials and reporting. To break from that pattern without any changes in policy would be highly unusual. Second, Amazon employs about 180,000 people. About 100, or 0.0006%, were interviewed for the NYT article. While 100 interviews for a newspaper article is impressive, that hardly represents the workplace. Third, journalists bent on finding contrary viewpoints, such as those of disgruntled employees—especially former ones, like many of those that spoke to the NYT—can find them even at companies considered the best managed. Fourth, not only Jeff Bezos but current rank and file employees have responded that they do not recognize Amazon from the NYT story.

I have not worked for Amazon, nor do I know anybody who has. I don’t own any Amazon shares (although I wish I did). But I have read the NYT article, the Jeff Bezos’ letter to Amazonians in response to it, an employee response on LinkedIn, and various other commentary. This is what I know: How Amazon runs its operations, including managing its staff, is Amazon’s business.

The moral assessment comes to this: Amazon is not initiating physical force against anybody, including its employees. On that account alone, the NYT depiction of the company as a slave-driving exploiter of its employees is false. Nobody is forced to work for Amazon, and employees are free to quit if they want. Judging from the NYT article (with no official turnover numbers), many do and go to work for other IT companies, including Facebook. However, high turnover at successful companies is not unusual. Schlumberger, the multinational oil field services giant, that was deemed the greatest (most profitable) company in the world in the 1980s, has an annual employee turnover rate of about 20%. Those who work there like the hard-working culture and challenge; those who don’t, quit. As in Amazon, employees trade value for value: their productivity for interesting work and good compensation.

For customers, there is absolutely no moral reason to boycott the company. Thanks to Amazon’s drive to innovation, growth, lower costs—and profits—we benefit: from the convenience of ordering a wide variety of products online and having them delivered to us fast, even with drones, and from the low cost that this can be achieved. The employees benefit also: they get to do interesting, challenging work and receive good compensation, including Amazon stock.

I am not condoning callous treatment of employees—even those who are not a good match can be guided out respectfully. It is not in Amazon’s self-interest to treat its productive employees poorly when they encounter health and family problems. If this was a company-wide practice instead of isolated mistakes by individual managers, Amazon could not succeed as they would lose their best assets: the employees that their success depends on.

So go ahead and keep ordering from Amazon—and reserve boycotts for companies that initiate force and fraud.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for another great article Jaana. I know a middle aged female that works in an Amazon product distribution center in South Carolina. Before the NYT article, about two months ago, she was telling me how much she liked her job and even bragged on the pay and the benefits.

    • This is good to hear. Even if it is anecdotal evidence, your acquaintance’s experience, along that with other Amazon employees who have defended the company, helps to show that the people the NYT interviewed do not represent the entire workforce.

  2. Indeed, initiating force is the question.

    I doubt it’s difficult to get jobs in the kind of work they do, so people can move on without great difficulty. Bezos suggests they do if they are being mistreated. (I presume Bezos is just making a point about quitting, preferring they’d find another job in the company. If allowed – a huge company near Amazon prevented that because badly managed functions would be left with few employees as people voted with their feet. It’s a controlling mentality instead of the trading values approach described addressed in books like you and Robert G. Flitton wrote. If good people are struggling to do the work, for whatever reason, they might be re-assigned.)

    I am acquainted with objective individuals who worked at Amazon, I haven’t heard complaints but they were in a new venture and were go-getters who moved on to do their own thing when that venture failed.

    Certainly Amazon loses business because of its failure to communicate with customers when there is a problem, and does not have the most efficient shipping operation. So its owners will lose – that’s what happens in a free marketplace protected by a justice system.

    I think Bezos has lost touch with the operation, he needs to personally investigate problems known to exist.

    • Thanks, Keith! Rapid growth and directing/controlling large organizations is a big managerial challenge. But John Allison was able to do that with BB&T (which is not quite as large as Amazon, but nevertheless had tens of thousands of employees, already in Allison’s time).

  3. A question for the NYT is how Amazon employees were selected for interview. It is difficult to make a survey to get a representative cross-section of views and estimate proportions holding each view.

    Certainly unhappy people will get publicity. (Whether or not their thinking is valid, some have an entitlement mentality of not needing to perform.)

    It’s common today to use self-selecting respondents, which cannot provide proper results. A survey by a large charity proved that – its statistics for under-30 respondents were very skewed between male and female, whereas they are close to equal in most populations (construction camps an obvious exception). I’ve had to coach a professional engineering association. on the folly of using self-selecting respondents. Typically that’s done because it is cheaper – it’s like determining strength of a site for a building or water dam by only looking in dry areas.

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