Sleeping Under The Cell Tower
I’d like to dive deeper (that’s actually Principle 12) into Amazon’s leadership principles, or at least the ones that I’ve given the most though to. The one that really grinds my gears is Principle 13,“have backbone; disagree and commit.” I wasn’t kidding when I wrote to Jeff that “I have a reinforced strong backbone” and I’ve got the X-rays to show it — I’ll be setting off security alarms for the rest of my life with the amount of metal I’ve got holding my insides together. Now, while having a “disagree and commit” principle which emboldens and enables each Amazonian to speak what’s on their mind, even if it means pissing other people off and heated arguments, is a theoretically admirable principle. But life isn’t like a sitcom in which issues are resolved in 22 minutes. The “backbone” principle doesn’t mean you’re not going to step on any toes, hurt any feelings, or run afoul of your bosses. I’ve also yet to determine exactly what “backbone” stands for and what kind of standards it upholds. It seems to me (and plenty of other observers), that there isn’t any business Amazon won’t pursue due to unethical or even criminal practices, as its partnership with the rendition-as-a-service provider DXC proved. I don’t think Amazon has got muchbackbone. Cartilage, perhaps, but backbone, not so much.
This brings us to Principle 6, “insist on the highest standards.” Anyone who’s read this far into this book probably laughed at that one, given Amazon’s willingness to do business with some of the world’s worst human rights violators, to say nothing of the way it treats the “least” of its workforce.Amazon explains that its high standards principle means, in part, that “leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.” To me this completely overlooks the workers who are paid poverty wages to avoid defects and fix problems to the point where the worker becomes the defect, the problem to be fixed; and we’ve seen how Amazon go about this.
Principle 11, “earn the trust of others,” becomes something of a mission impossible in such a work environment. How can fulfillment workers ever trust bosses who work them so hard for so little and he literally monitor every move of their hands with tracking devices? How can mid-level Amazonians trust a management that pays for a new company-wide $15 minimum wage by slashing their benefits? How can conscientious consumers or investors trust a behemoth that’s ruthlessly crushed its competition and demonstrated a willingness to work with even those who fly people to secret torture prisons?
Principle 9, “frugality,” is the genesis of countless water cooler jokes among Amazonians. “We try not to spend money on things that don’t matter to customers,” Amazon explains. But the company may as well just give a big middle finger to those who matter most to its successful operation: itsworkers. Amazon isn’t just frugal, it’s downright cheap. Would you believe me if I told you they hold their “holiday party” in February? Well they do, and I’m not talking about Presidents’ or Valentines Day, or Black History Month either.
I really couldn’t shake the feeling that I was working for a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge, but even the brilliant mind and pen of Charles Dickens couldn’t imagine that the richest man in the world would scrooge’s overworked employees out of a proper holiday party and then have the“backbone” to double down by throwing them a lame event in February instead!
Cape Cod, for example, is a lovely — though really expensive — place to spend a delightful summer holiday. But would you go there in the winter, when the weather is freezing, wet, and miserable, just to save money? Of course not.
In addition to being stingy on employee niceties, Amazon is also cheap on social responsibility and on its own responsibility to pay its fair share of taxes. I don’t often agree with President Trump but he was absolutely right when he tweeted about Amazon’s tax avoidance. The company pays almost no federal tax despite being worth over a trillion dollars at the time of this writing. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP), a non-partisan, non-profit think tank, Amazon,which reported $5.6 billion in annual profit and reaped a $789 million windfall from the newly enacted Republican tax reform (read bottom-up redistribution) law, didn’t pay a dime of federal income tax in 2017. Furthermore, ITEP says that during the previous five years, Amazon reported US profits of $8.2 billion, yet paid an effective federal income tax rate of just 11.4 percent.31 Then There’s the issue of Amazon’s demands on the as-yet undetermined city that will be home to the company’s controversial HQ2 (second headquarters) project, which Bezos says will bring $5 billion in investment and 50,000 new high-paying jobs to the lucky winner.32 We don’t know exactly what all of these demands are because Amazon forced the 20 finalists to sign non-disclosure agreements,but we do know that whenever 238 municipalities compete to offer the most enticing package, the results can be nothing but a race to the bottom with one big winner — Amazon. It will surely get its second headquarters on the cheap, most likely with plenty of tax breaks and other incentives. We Know that Newark, New Jersey offered $7 billion in city and state tax credits, while Grand Rapids,Michigan — which didn’t even make it into the round of 20 finalists — offered $2 billion in incentives.33 Asking municipalities to fund and subsidize private corporations’ costs is really unfair to the people who live and pay taxes there. It takes desperately needed funding away from essential public services in a time of never-ending budget cuts. It diverts money that could be spent fixing schools and infrastructure, or on social programs, housing, libraries, community centers, and other projects that enhance the places we live and not just corporations’ bottom lines.
The final Amazon leadership principle I’d like to discuss is the very first one the company thought of — customer obsession. Amazon is obsessed with its customers to a fault. It pursues this policy even when it means tarnishing its own brand, as was the case with DXC and its rendition flights.Sometimes Amazon doesn’t even operate by its principles but rather by what I’ve described as an elaborate screen of metaphorical smoke and mirrors. While I was at Amazon I was responsible for summarizing the “Win Reports” for my attorney-turned-manager to highlight group wins with our partners. I found the process very subjective and anything but analytical. As a business we actually had no idea how they influenced revenues, but I was nonetheless asked to insert data and deal sizes without any actual numbers to back it all up. It was all made up. I told a manager, as well as my own boss who reported directly to the GM, that I felt uncomfortable reporting these bogus numbers and wins, especially since I would have to use them as the source in my report. Of course, my boss did not want to be on the hook for fake numbers and refused to be referenced in the report. We Ended the conversation in disagreement. Later that day the stress proved too much and I broke down and wrote a personal advertisement I intended to publish in the Palo Alto Daily News stating that I Am the fool who works for Jeff Bezos. The ad never ran; the publisher was too worried about drawing the litigious ire of such a giant as Amazon. I took that afternoon off and checked myself into Stanford Hospital emergency room. I was diagnosed with work-related stress and discharged attwo in the morning. I called in sick the next day.
I then wrote to Jeff Bezos for the fourth and final time. I reminded him of the time that I was running Warranty Now back in the dot.com boom. His team on Amazon’s retail side had refused to meet with my company because one of our partners had used an Amazon logo on a UPS box for advertisement without our knowledge. Amazon felt that had been a violation of their trademark;therefore, they wouldn’t consider us as a vendor. I sent Jeff an invitation to meet to discuss this over tea. I wanted to discuss how I got screwed over, how I’d lost my brand, and now how CSC’s new iteration, DXC, was doing business with AWS. I had previously met with AWS’s CEO and thought that after reading Jeff’s response to that infamous New York Times article, he would really like to know what the hell was going on in his company. But I was proven wrong.
In that August 2015 article, the Times’ Jodi Kantor and David Streitfield opened a window on a world in which Amazon employees — they’re called Amazonians in company parlance — are subjected to a pressure-cooker environment of overwork and blistering criticism. The article told of emails sent by supervisors at midnight, followed up with text messages asking why the email wasn’t answered. Snitching on colleagues via covert communication with bosses is also encouraged.Workers suffering from cancer, miscarriages, and other afflictions and crises said they were evaluated unfairly or pushed aside. One former Amazon human resources director referred to employees who left the company or were terminated in annual culls as victims of “purposeful Darwinism.” A former Amazon book marketer said seeing people weep while working was a regular occurrence: “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” he recalled. While some employees said the workplace culture at Amazon helped them reach heights they previously thought were unattainable, others felt attacked by a management style that encourages fierce,sometimes painful, criticism of others’ ideas and actions. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” one employee told the Times.