Amazon is a big company--like, really big. And, like every big company, it has its issues. In some cases, we put up with the issues because, despite them, customers still get what they want out of the company.
Most of Amazon's problems right now come down to the unprecedented surge of online shopping during the stay at home orders amid the coronavirus pandemic. There are deeper issues, however, most recently illustrated by the way the company handled employees who have drawn attention to various concerns like worker safety.
You can imagine that being safe at work is a pretty important consideration during a pandemic. Considering how much we have all come to depend on Amazon in a world where many people are anxious about going to the store, it's an important consideration for all of us. If Amazon's employees aren't safe, they aren't able to work, and that's a problem for millions of people waiting on orders.
It's easy to overlook those problems as long as your purchases continue to show up on your doorstep, but a former VP with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the company's cloud-computing platform, has brought them to light in a very public way. The former executive, named Tim Bray, wrote a blog post explaining his reasons for resigning from Amazon, and he didn't hold back:
Fast-forward to the Covid-19 era. Stories surfaced of unrest in Amazon warehouses, workers raising alarms about being uninformed, unprotected, and frightened. Official statements claimed every possible safety precaution was being taken. Then a worker organizing for better safety conditions was fired, and brutally insensitive remarks appeared in leaked executive meeting notes where the focus was on defending Amazon "talking points."
Bray says that he escalated his personal concerns about the way the company was handling these events, but could no longer continue to stand by. According to Bray, "remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned"
Amazon has previously said that at least one individual who was involved in organizing an employee walkout wasn't terminated due to his role in the protest. Instead, Amazon says it was because he violated company policy after being asked to self-isolate due to potential exposure to a co-worker who had tested positive for Covid-19.
That may be true, and if it is, the company would certainly be within its rights to terminate the employee. Except, there's a bigger issue that gets to the heart of Amazon's culture and values.
It's a problem for any organization or business that starts to shut down the voices of its employees because it becomes inconvenient or challenging. I wrote the same thing about Google when the company cracked down on dissenting viewpoints, most notably by ending its storied all-company meeting.
In both cases, the moves reflect a company that has deeper cultural issues than a few workers upset over working conditions. "Firing whistleblowers isn't just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets," said Bray. "It's evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture."
I think we can all agree that's a problem that deserves Amazon's attention.