A children's treasury of Amazon employee horror stories

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Once upon a time, union workers ruled the land of Puget Sound. With guaranteed weekends, 40 hour work weeks, and paid overtime, they made their living at companies like Boeing and its ecosystem of contractors, raised families, and created the Seattle region as it exists today.

In the modern age, however, a new type of worker has increasingly dominated the local economy: the tech employee. Many of these individuals have it better than the union worker. In addition to doing zero physical labor, they often have in-office perks like foosball and rooftop decks, generous pay and benefits, and flexible hours.

Then there’s the workforce of online retailer Amazon.com, also known as “The Blue Badges.” The nickname is a reference to the blue ID cards they wear around everywhere, even when not at the office, like the city is one big company campus. As one learns more about Amazon’s culture, this practice makes more sense: for many Amazon workers, the line between work and the rest of life is a bit blurry.

Last week, the New York Times ran an exposé on what it’s like to work for Amazon, the result of interviews with over 100 employees and ex-employees. Nonexistent weekends. Crying at desks. Being pressured to answer emails after midnight. Career prospects dwindling when employees request sick leave or attempt to carve out time to be parents to their kids.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, in an email sent to employees after the story ran, summed up its gist best: “It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” He then goes on to say that he doesn’t recognize the Amazon of the article, and that he’d quit the sort of company it describes.

It’s true that there are plenty of positive stories about working for Amazon. Some can be found on employer ranking site Glassdoor.com, where Amazon ranks 3.4 stars out of five. But even five-star reviews often come with caveats, warning of a company that will work you to the bone if you let it, and in which placement in the wrong team can mean a miserable road ahead.

Expressing shock at the New York Times article, Bezos has asked employees to email their horror stories directly to him. However, serious gripes about working at Amazon have been floating around for years, long before the Times expose.  So in the interest of expanding Bezos' understanding of the company he leads, we present a short compendium of some stories and anecdotes below. This list focuses on the white collar side, and doesn’t even include the perspectives of warehouse workers, which seem especially hellish.



From Gawker:

I've had worse jobs in my life (we all have), but I've never hated a job or a supervisor more. Does that make sense? I dread like a root canal appointment every Sunday night, knowing Monday morning is on its way. When I walk through the doors my head is ringing with regret, mind-numbing repetition, and expectations of browbeating. My expectations have never once gone ungratified.

...I do not know one person who is happy at Amazon. They are putting their time in for the cash or their family or a new house or kids in college and then walking "as soon as I [expletive] can." Everyone has a time table for quitting. No one says, "I hope I stay here forever."

… Think about how expensive it must be (financially and to their reputation, which are not so different in the long term) to lose hard-working, smart people at such a frequency. Trust, morale and institutional knowledge erode every day, only to be buoyed by the wide-eyed n00bs who start in their place… That approach to employee replacement cannot go forever. It is only a matter of time until the tech world runs out of smart people who believe it will be "different for me." (My theory: they bank on candidates from other countries who are not only unaware of the rumours, but who see the compensation as a windfall and don't care about the consequences).

From Glassdoor:

- I have to admit that Monday is usually a blue day at Amazon and it is very tough to look forward to getting into office. I don't know anyone in Amazon who looks forward to getting in on Mondays…. Employee retention is horrible. I am not sure why the philosophy seems to be trying to undercut existing employees and then hire from external sources. Management all say that they are trying to retain people, but actions don't seem to suggest anything better.

-No work/life balance, sweat shop. Yes, they will wake you up at 2am in the middle of the night. Management truly doesn't care about their employees. Very bad culture, people talk behind your back. Very high turnover, most developers are still unfamiliar with the product they're working on.

- Amazon is built, quite deliberately, to be Darwinian. The strong survive and the weak perish (metaphorically speaking) and the 'bar' is constantly increasing. The level of performance that would have been acceptable five years ago will get you canned today. It's a kind of crucible that'll help you develop a harder edge, if you can survive, that can serve you well in your career and in life, but it's often not a pleasant experience. I wouldn't recommend it as a place to work for just anyone.

From “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” by Brad Stone:

While employees embraced Amazon’s newly articulated values, many resisted the breakneck pace of the work. As Amazon’s growth accelerated, Bezos drove employees even harder, calling meetings over the weekends, starting an executive book club that gathered on Saturday mornings, and often repeating his quote about working smart, hard, and long.

As a result, the company was not friendly toward families, and some executives left when they wanted to have children. "Jeff didn’t believe in work-life balance," says Kim Rachmeler. "He believed in work-life harmony. I guess the idea is you might be able to do everything all at once."

… During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn’t take that well. "The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority," he answered bluntly. "That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you."

From Reddit:

- I must say you could be happy at Amazon if you fall into a good team and with a good manager… This is very rare, like winning-the-lottery-3-times-and-then-got-struck-by-lightning-rare, and you should be extremely grateful for that. (In) my entire department (one of the largest in Amazon) work-life balance sucks, all teams are miserable and most managers are satanic.

- I held a senior role not in the US in a support function for operations. It is by far the worst job I have ever had. Every department manager hates each other. Very few people like working together to be more honest. You win points for embarrassing each other or creating workloads for meaningless things. There was once a meeting of all functional heads for 25 minutes to decide what height posters celebrating St. Patricks Day should be positioned at.

- My brother worked at Amazon for two years and hated every moment of it. He would agree with everything you stated in this post: the long hours, insane demands by managers, lack of career growth opportunities and a really cheap (not frugal) employee environment. He knew of a manager who would sleep in his car in the Amazon garage on Sundays in order to be first in the office on Monday and review through reports.

From Gawker:

I worked for a manager that slept in his car on Sundays so he could be in the office bright and early for the weekly business review with top management. This was after running data reports every Sunday beginning in the morning and not finishing until very late at night.

…The team was made up of recent college grads and 30 somethings. I thought it was strange that I was the only person that had a family. But it became apparent that it wasn't really looked upon as a good thing. I had to miss a conference call with India for my daughter's school play and was told that I was expected to work around their schedule because they weren't authorized for overtime.

… I am a tough cookie - I have never cried at work, even when a friend died of cancer. I don't believe that anyone owed me anything. But working at Amazon was a soul-crushing experience. As others have stated, Amazon is a fantastic company for the customer. The leadership principle that everyone exemplified was to start at the customer and work your way backwards. But they are the worst employer and steward for the community.

From Salon:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s.

… With Walmart’s and Amazon’s business model, the workplace practices that raise employee productivity to very high levels also keep employees off balance and thus ill placed to secure wage increases that match their increased output.

From Silicon Valley Business Journal:

Uncomfortable. Adversarial. A Darwinian struggle for survival. These are all terms used to describe Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ relationship with his staff, according to four former Amazonians who have branched off from the e-commerce giant to start their own businesses.

… Dave Selinger, now CEO of RichRelevance… recalled many nights of drinking with his roommates (also Amazon employees) after a terrible day at work. “I would go home and throw stuff. One of my roommates was on a team where 20 people were doing the work of 300 engineers. We were all always on pager duty,” Selinger said.

“Amazon changed me in a very profound way,” said Nadia Shouraboura, CEO of Hointer, a retail tech startup. “I was a very data driven person and Jeff gave me a business to run. He will tell you, ‘you’re a total idiot, but do it anyway.’”


From Gawker:

My first boss at Amazon was actually emotionally abusive. I have triggers now that I never did before. I had battered wife syndrome. You know how Amazon dealt with it? They "let" me move to a different team a month before my 1-year anniversary. My boss got to stay a manager, but I had to leave the team. All HR said to me was, "Well, you hurt his feelings too sometimes."

In my second team, I worked less than anyone else on the business side. And I worked 80 hours each week. I'd start at 5am and end at 7pm six days a week… My coworkers were working 100+ hours/week … and they were continuously threatened by Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs)….I was also told that the only way to get ahead was to become evil, since that's how Jeff B. setup the company.

From Reddit:

My manager at AMZN, who subsequently left Amazon a couple of years after me gave me some really golden advice - and I can pass it to any future Amazonian here: "If you're going to succeed at Amazon, you need to be a dick."

… The job of any ruthless capitalist (i.e. Bezos), is to squeeze the MOST he can for as LITTLE AS POSSIBLE (pay wise) out of you as he can - while pulling wool over your eyes with perks and crap like that. If you think you're gonna get "rich" at Amazon - keep deluding yourself .... Sure, you'll get a s**t load of experience, and for that reason, it's good to work there, but make no mistake - the time to get "rich" at Amazon is long, long, long past.

From Quora

As others pointed out the (New York Times) article is not accurate. It completely misses few big and real problems with working at Amazon:

1. Horrible RSU vesting schedule, unique in the industry, 2. Bad health insurance coverage 3. No paternity leave 4. Bad policy for sponsoring green card 5. Bad 401k matching 6. No compensation for long and horrible on-call duties, and many more.

The author  missed the opportunity to utilize the opportunity to raise awareness about these real issues with working at Amazon. It would be interesting to see how their execs respond then.


H/t to Wonkette for the headline idea. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins

Drew Atkins is a journalist and writer in Seattle, and the recipient of numerous national and regional awards. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Seattle Times, The Oregonian, InvestigateWest, Geekwire, Seattle Magazine, and others. He also previously served as the managing editor of Crosscut. He can be contacted at drew.atkins@crosscut.com.