3 Ways to Avoid Becoming “The Greatest Place We Hate to Work” — Lessons from “Inside Amazon”

An unsettling pattern has recently surfaced at one of America’s largest retailers.

According to a recent NY Times article, Amazon employees are resigning at an alarming rate due to being overworked and unable to keep up with rising demands.

Even some “Amazonians” (as their  employees often call themselves) who’ve worked on Wall Street and at startups say, “the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends”.

This is just one of many accounts from current and ex-Amazon employees which highlights Amazon’s “Darwinistic” approach that has sparked recent controversy.

Another ex-Amazonian, Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three, said that her boss, Shahrul Ladue, told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required. Mr. Ladue, who confirmed her account, said that Ms. Williamson had been directly competing with younger colleagues with fewer commitments, so he suggested she find a less demanding job at Amazon. Ms. Williamson resigned shortly after.

The article brings to light that behind every successful business are employees that are real people (we’ll give it at least a few more years before the robots take over). These real people have real lives, real experiences, real families and real struggles. And while it’s true that you can only control so much, if your business is going to succeed in the long-run, you better take care of these real people.

Take care of your people or someone else will

1.  Make your workplace more hospitable for woman and parents

The federal government mandates 12 weeks of leave to care for a child or family member under the Family and Medical Leave Act – but that’s unpaid time off and it applies only to companies with more than 50 employees. Nearly 90% of workers in private companies are left with no paid parental leave at all.

Forward-thinking companies like Netflix and Google understand this, and they’ve taken the opposite approach. Netflix recently announced that new parents, both moms and dads, including adoptive parents, can take as much paid leave as they like for up to a year after the birth or adoption of a child.

We’re not necessarily suggesting that you need to be as forward-thinking or as generous as Netflix, though. In 2007 Google boosted its paid maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks and saw that returning mothers left the company at half the rate than they did before the program expanded.

Sometimes even a small change can go a big way. As the gender gap in technology closes and more women continue enter the workforce, employers need to reexamine their parental leave policies. Companies that don’t will undoubtedly lose out on attracting and retaining top talent.

 2.  A “work hard, play hard” culture can lead to employee burnout

Countless organizations are turning up the dial and pushing their teams to do more for less money in order to keep up with global competition.

Amazon is a prime example. One ex-Amazon employee recalls taking a “vacation” with her family to Florida and spending everyday plugging away at Starbucks to get work done instead of spending time with her kids.

Unrealistic expectations and ill-defined barriers between work life and personal life can lead to employee burnout and ultimately high turnover, which is expensive…really expensive.

Research by the Society for Human Resource Management suggests that “direct replacement costs can reach as high as 50-60 percent of an employee’s annual salary, with total costs associated with turnover ranging from 90 percent to 200 percent of annual salary”.

To help keep employees from burning out we suggest giving employees one “must-have” every week. These must-haves can range from, “I want to be home at 6 o’clock for dinner on Wednesday nights” to “I want to shift my hours to start at 7:30am so I can leave in time to pick up my kids from school”.

Whatever the request is, the point is that during the chaotic work week, they’ll have peace of mind knowing they have that one thing that remains constant.

3.  We’re all in the people business

Amazon’s cut-throat culture is exemplified by the use of the common phrase “purposeful Darwinism” among the HR staff. One ex-Amazonian mentions that “Amazon is O.K. with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars”.

This makes sense at face value —  you create an environment of intense competition where your best performers will rise to the top and then rewarded for their efforts. However, there are secondary consequences of a purely Darwinist approach that may inflict long-term damage on employee morale, engagement and collaboration.

Amy Michaels, an ex-Amazonian in marketing and advertising warned that, “when you have so much turnover, the risk is that people are seen as fungible”. In other words, employees are seen as expendable commodities instead of as valued individuals. Another employee even mentioned that  “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot” – meaning you’ve become one with the system.

As employees lose their sense of individualism and feel easily replaceable, the real risk is more disengaged employees. Research by the  Energy Project and the Harvard Business Review, shows that a high number of  disengaged workers results in lower productivity and organization-wide spread of negativity.

To proactively prevent employee disengagement be diligent in hiring the right people who are the right fit for your organization from the get- go. If you hire candidates who believe in your mission and vision, there’s a higher likelihood that they’ll be intrinsically motivated to act with the best interests of your company in mind.

The Greatest Place We Love to Work

Amidst all the recent accusations about Amazon’s unfair policies and treatment of employees, there is one thing that current and ex-Amazon employees can agree on.  Working at Amazon will push you past what you thought were your limits — and that’s addicting!  As one ex-Amazonian put it “it’s the greatest place I hate to work”.

Well, that’s somewhat of an oxymoron isn’t it? How about we treat our employee as real people, work to identify real issues within our organizations, and take real steps towards being “the greatest place we love to work” instead? Now that’s an addiction we can support!