Business, Economics and Jobs

Amazon's harsh hours might not fly at some foreign operations

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Workers sort arriving products at an Amazon Fulfilment Center in Tracy, California on August 3, 2015. 

Credit:

Robert Galbraith/Reuters

There’s been a lot of water cooler discussion this week about Amazon and The New York Times’ investigative piece chronicling a brutally competitive white collar workplace. The Times interviewed more than 100 current and former employees who describe a bruising, cut-throat environment. One former employee said he saw everybody he worked with eventually break down and cry at their desk.

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Amazon is based in Seattle, but operates in 32 nations. We were wondering: Where else is it making its workers cry? Or put another way, where else would people tolerate the harsh conditions described?

The retail giant has 10,526 job openings in 141 locations. Among those listings, Amazon needs software developers in Alexandria, Egypt. I was thinking, the Times article, describing arduous hours, probably isn’t helping recruiting there.

My friend Kim Gamel says I’m wrong. She spent much of the past decade in the Middle East and five years in Egypt working as a journalist. She says young Egyptians aren’t going to be scared off reading about 80-hour work weeks or “marathon” conference calls on holidays.  

“First of all, these jobs are rare in Egypt,” says Gamel. “And somebody who wants to get ahead is going to be really grateful for the opportunity to work at a company like Amazon. There’s a high level of unemployment and there are limited jobs to work with a Western company.”

Before she was in the Middle East, Gamel was a news editor in Sweden. She says Amazon’s demanding commitments wouldn’t go over so well there, though.

“That was some of the hardest scheduling I ever had to do because of all the ‘red days,’ which are days when either Swedes will not work, such as Christmas, or if they do work, you basically have to give them your arms and legs in order to to get them to work. They get a lot of overtime and compensation for that,” says Gamel.

Swedes work fewer hours than most Europeans, on average, but they’re very productive in those hours. They’re so productive that the Swedish city of Gothenburg is experimenting with a six-hour work day to see if municipal workers can actually get more done by working less. (Amazon operates in Gothenburg, by the way.)

The Times article doesn’t just describe long hours at Amazon — it chronicles a culture that demands a total commitment to work before, well, enjoying life.  For example, there’s the story of a woman with breast cancer who was told she might be fired because difficulties in her personal life were interfering with her work goals. Other workers echoed this account, saying they were judged harshly for dealing with various health crises.

Harsh.

Still, Amazon is one of the world’s most successful companies, and some people across the globe might read the Times article and say: That’s the place for me.

“What Amazon does is it leans into you as an individual and says: ‘Who the heck are you, and how can you bring your best? You’ve got some strengths to bring, step it up!’” says Marcus Buckingam, the founder of TMBC, a Los Angeles-based workforce consulting firm. They’re the people you hire when you want your employees to be more motivated and productive.

Buckingam says there’s one universal trait that motivates all of us. And Amazon offers it.

“People everywhere as workers feel as though they have something about them that is special, and they want to work to be a place in which they get a chance to express that. And that’s true globally, which is kind of lovely,” Buckingham says.

Another tendency at work, says Buckingham: People hate to be constantly judged. Buckingam says Amazon does a "terrible" job with this, using so-called stack rankings to weed out the weak.  

“So what stack rankings does really is it makes liars of every single team leader, and it forces them, at the end of the year, to say to a team member, ‘Look you’re not really a two, but I’ve got to make you a two because you were a one last year. And I’ve got another one person this year, so now you’re going to have to be a two. But don’t worry, I’m going to make you a one next year.’”

Buckingham says this leads to insecurity and backstabbing, conditions described at Amazon. According to the Times, workers are actively encouraged to be critical of each other. Gamel says that wouldn't fly in Egypt.

“People would find themselves insulted by such a thing,” says Gamel. “You have to be very polite, and you have to be very respectful.”

Still, economist Robert Frank at Cornell University says if the pay-out for getting to the top of the ladder is high enough, “Even well-entrenched cultural norms start to bend, and once they bend a little, then a new norm is in effect in place of the old one. ... And if enough people are chipping away, then norms gradually give way.”

One way to discourage excessive work is through higher taxes. In Sweden, for example, top earners pay close to 60 percent of their earnings in taxes, under a progressive system. For some, it’s just not worth it to put in the long hours, knowing that the government will reap the majority of the reward.

They can get away with those tax levels in Sweden though: An overwhelming majority of Swedes express confidence in their government tax collection agency and the services the government provides.

Developed nations also routinely regulate work hours and overtime to help unchain us from our desks. But if you’re a salaried worker, sometimes you need to blow through the ceiling to get ahead. It can be hard to knock off at 5 p.m. when others aren’t.

Frank helped coin the term “winner-take-all markets,” where people are rewarded not so much by how well they perform in absolute terms, but how well they perform compared with their nearest rival.

“Think about the example in a sports arena,” Frank says. “Everybody stands to get a better view. Well, nobody sees any better than if everybody had remained comfortably seated, and yet it’s rational to stand if others are standing.”

We’d all be more comfortable sitting, or, in this case, working less. But it can be hard to be the first one to take their seat, or, leave on time. If others don’t follow, you’ll miss the game.