AMAZON IS AN amazing company. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, started an online bookseller and turned it into a retailing giant. On the way, the company became a platform for third-party sellers, launched a highly successful electronic-book reader and created a cloud-computing service that allowed millions to store their data. There is a fascinating tale to be told about this transformation.
Unfortunately, a new book called “The Amazon Management System”, by Ram Charan and Julia Yang, a pair of consultants, is not it. In part this is down to editing. The cover offers an early warning, with a reference to “Warren Buffet” (sic). As a rule, Bartleby mistrusts any business tome that misspells the name of the famous investor. As irritating, the authors never use one adjective when seven or eight will do. A typical sentence reads: “Moreover, transparency of such ultra-detailed, end-to-end (cross-silo and cross-layer) real-time and inputs-oriented data and metrics makes the usual uphill battle for cross-functional collaboration much easier.”
A deeper problem is the book’s relentlessly hagiographic tone, no doubt influenced by Amazon’s success. It cites a few product failures, such as the Fire Phone, but that is it. The authors mention criticisms of its labour standards, which are widespread, but add that “We will not be addressing those concerns directly.” How can one write a serious book about Amazon’s management without dealing with how it manages most of its workers?
That is the focus of “On The Clock” by Emily Guendelsberger, published in 2019. The journalist spent time at an Amazon warehouse to discover what life was like for the “precariat”—workers in low-wage jobs. At her Kentucky warehouse the application process warned her that she would have to walk 5-15 miles (8-24km) a day, climb and descend four flights of stairs, work nights, weekends and public holidays, and face a schedule that might change at short notice. During her shift, she got a 30-minute unpaid break for lunch and two 15-minute paid breaks.
Keeping up the pace was tough. Those who fail to “make rate” can be fired. Warehouse vending machines contain painkillers, after many workers requested them to counter work-related aches.
Amazon responded to The Economist that “for someone who only worked at Amazon for approximately 11 days, Emily Guendelsberger’s statements are not an accurate portrayal of working in our buildings.” The company says that unpaid lunch breaks are standard practice in the industry and that “employees can take short breaks at any time to use the restroom, grab water or a snack, or speak to their coworkers or manager, etc, all of which are paid breaks.” Amazon adds that it has introduced robotic drive units, which reduce the amount of walking required. In America it raised its minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2018 and says it offers “industry-leading benefits”.
In Britain the GMB union has been campaigning against warehouse conditions, saying that there were 600 ambulance calls to Amazon sites within three years. The company replies that “Amazon is a safe place to work. We benchmark against UK national data, published by the Health & Safety Executive, confirming we have over 40% fewer injuries on average than other transportation and warehousing businesses in the UK.”
Or take barring employees from taking phones onto the warehouse floor. They must leave them in a locker. But what if their children are taken ill? It may be hours before they learn about it. As for the company’s refusal to meet or recognise the GMB union, Amazon says it “already offers what they are requesting for employees”. If everything were rosy, workers would have no reason to join a union, and therefore recognising GMB would not be an issue.
One can side with the company or its critics. To your columnist some of its practices look rather Victorian, whether or not they are standard for the industry. If you work a ten-hour shift, you need to eat and should be paid for the time. Not paying for lunch breaks is reminiscent of Scrooge, the miser portrayed by Charles Dickens, who grumbled about paying “a day’s wages for no work” when his clerks took off Christmas Day.
Others may disagree with Bartleby. But if you are writing a book about Amazon, you should form a view. Appraising a firm’s management style should involve an assessment of how it treats not just its executives, but the bulk of its workers. Too few business books do.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Lost in the Amazon jungle”