In the movie Annie Hall, Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) tells an old joke about two elderly women having dinner at a Catskill mountain resort. One of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”
Alvy says that’s essentially how he feels about life: it’s full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. Many people seem to have a similar complaint after reading the recent New York Times exposé about Amazon.com: The company is a terrible place to work, and it’s almost impossible to get or keep a job there.
The article certainly makes Amazon sound like a brutal place to work. As one former employee says, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.” In the third paragraph the Times claims,
At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.
Many people will read that and be horrified while others will shrug and say, “Sounds a lot like the company I work for.” There are also those who question the accuracy and fairness of the article (Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, also owns the Washington Post, a primary competitor of the New York Times). One current employee even explains in detail what the story gets wrong.
I don’t want to bash or defend Amazon. But I do think it is worth asking why, if the company is so horrible, are people beating down Amazon’s door to work there?
Assuming the article is mostly accurate, many people (including me) would say they have no interest in working for such a company. The reality, though, is that the vast majority of people (including me) would not have a chance of getting hired at Amazon in the first place.
There are a many tech companies that are famous for their selective hiring—Facebook, Google, Microsoft—but Amazon is rumored to be the most selective of them all. In fact, as the article notes, Facebook and LinkedIn have opened large Seattle offices in part so they can hire former Amazon employees.
Why do elite tech workers who could work almost anywhere they want choose to work for Amazon? Presumably because they think their personal interests are best served by working for Amazon rather than for some other company.
This is the same reason most people who have a choice about where they can work decide on which job to take. Company Z may have a better healthcare plan than Company Y or Company X may offer tuition assistance for graduate school while Company W only has on-site daycare. We tend to choose the mix of benefits and options that best align with our preferences. This is so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated.
There is another point that is equally obvious and yet often overlooked: No company can (or necessarily should) offer all of the preferences or mix of preferences that every employee would like to choose. In many cases it’s simple a matter of limited resources. Company Z, for instance, may not be able to afford a gold-plated healthcare plan, tuition assistance, and on-site daycare. In other cases, a company may decide that providing a certain perks and benefits would be against the company’s best interest. For example, Company Z may have found from experience that providing tuition assistance hurts the firm since once their engineers get a PhD they leave the company altogether.
A prime example of this latter type was the proposed policy change made in 1993 to no longer permit married persons to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps. The proposed order declared that the ban had become necessary because too many young Marines were experiencing failed marriages, which in turn was affecting their readiness and morale. The Clinton administration squashed the policy before it could take effect. But incorporating the policy would have been the right thing to do.
At the time of the policy I was a young enlisted Marine who was married with a newborn child. When my daughter turned 3 months old I had to leave my family for a six-month tour in Japan. In that pre-Skype, pre-email era, I was able to only talk to my wife and baby once a week (phone calls were $20 for 10 minutes) and had to wait by the mailbox for weekly updates. It was the first of many difficulties that came with being young, enlisted, and married.
The reality was that being married with a child was not always compatible with being a Lance Corporal in the Marines. The Corps could have saved many marriages had they been able to prevent people from being hired into that situation in the first place. Instead, a more “compassionate” policy led to the failure of many marriages and the breaking up of many young families.
Corporate America is similarly constrained by laws that affect their hiring policies. For instance, they can’t come right out and tell a woman that if she’s currently pregnant it may not be the right job for her. But once she’s hired, they can let her go if she’s not meeting the same expectations (e.g., the ability to work long hours) the company had prior to hiring her.
Many people automatically think this is unfair, yet I would say the problem is falling for what I’d call the “All Jobs Delusion.”
There are certain minimal standards (such as health and safety) that should necessarily apply to all jobs. These are few and mostly agreed upon by all reasonable employers and employees. The “all jobs delusion” occurs when someone thinks that a certain standard should apply to all jobs (or at least all in a certain field or occupation) and that if that standard is not met, the company should either be compelled by law to meet the standard or the job should not exist, and that the effect will not harm anyone.
The most common example is minimum wage laws. Federal and state laws require that all jobs must meet a certain wage floor, and if they don’t then the job cannot exist. The result, of course, is that many low-wage workers lose out on jobs that are never allowed to be created. Of course, since those people are harder to identify, people who fall for the “all jobs delusion” don’t give these low-skilled workers much thought. Out of sight, out of mind.
Another example is mandatory maternity leave. In 1993, the “all jobs delusion” led to the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act. Part of this law says you can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave in any 12-month period for the birth of your baby.
The problem is not with the leave but with the mandatory part. The assumption was that (almost) all jobs should provide this benefit, and since some employers would not, the government should force them to do so. What this misses is both that some employers cannot afford this benefit and others will simply take measures to compensate for it. The result is that some employees will benefit while others are harmed.
The law only applies to companies with 50 or more people, so one way around the requirement is to never hire the 50th employee. Instead of hiring additional employees the company may choose to outsource the new tasks, maybe even to another country. And all companies will simply factor in the cost of this “benefit” and lower the wages accordingly. Most companies can’t know how many of their employees will be gone for three months out of the year, but they have to make estimates in order to cover that lost time and productivity. The result is that almost everyone’s salary will be reduced in order to subsidize this benefit for those who take it and the other employees will have to work harder to compensate for the work not being done by their colleagues.
Many people will say that it’s reasonable for everyone in the company to take less money so that some people can get paid leave. Others, however, will disagree. They may not understand why they should have to take a lower salary (and have less money for their own family) just so a couple with two-incomes making six figures can spend more time at home. The question is certainly a matter of “fairness” but one side gets to decide for everyone else what is fair. And that’s not fair.
Ideally, most employees—especially high-paid white-collar workers who aren’t being exploited or forced to engage in immoral and illicit activities—should be able to choose for themselves what working conditions and benefits they will accept. If they don’t want to work in a cutthroat environment like Amazon, they can work for the more laid-back Facebook. If they don’t like the mix of options at one company, they can choose to work for another. By allowing both employers and employees to make the choices for themselves, the result is that in the long run both groups will get what they need.
In other words, freedom can lead to fairness—if we’re willing to give it a chance.