My year of hell working for Amazon

1 Nov|Rebecca Gualandi

Modern Toss

Philosophy graduate Rebecca Gualandi landed what looked like a dream job at Amazon HQ in London. A year later she quit in disgust. Here is her story

After completing a degree in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, which involved four years reading Kant and Hume in an idyllic and sweet Scottish setting, I found myself wondering what I should spend the rest of my life doing.

I decided to look for a corporate job in in London. This would buy me time and in any case, my friends were all loving there. Being tri-lingual, I typed “Italian and French speaking jobs in London” into the Linkedin search bar and “Fraud Investigation Specialist” at Amazon popped up. I applied.

Two weeks later, there was an “informal chat” on the phone and a language test followed by another formal phone interview and a round of three interviews of 45 minutes long at Amazon’s Holborn base in London.

The interviews all revolved around Amazon’s so-called leadership principles and to what extent I had displayed them in my past professional and non-professional experiences.

Suddenly my life was divided into experiences that could fit into one of the leadership principles and ones that didn’t – what about that time I stayed up all night to finish an essay for my Metaphysics class, could that fit into Deliver Results or maybe Insist on the Highest Standard?

I made a table of my experiences and drew a line between those experiences that I could talk about and those that meant I was just a normal human and not worthy of being an “Amazonian”. And so I went through the three different interviews fully immersing myself into this new way of categorizing experiences, not knowing that the 14 leadership principles would accompany me for a whole year from the moment I drank my first coffee in the morning to when I shut my computer.

I received a call – the job was mine, along with £24k a year and a warm welcome into the Amazonian way of life.

On my first day they tested my leadership principle knowledge with a fun quiz and explained that part of being an Amazonian is being “peculiar” – seeing things differently. I assumed this was how they maintain consistency and focus throughout the company, but I also quickly realized that either one subscribed to the Amazonian way or one became disenchanted and in my case, repelled by the corporate brainwash.

Every day I would walk to the office in Aldgate, drink my free cup of coffee (one of the perks of working at Amazon – that and free fruit on Tuesday) and sit at my desk. Amazon likes to have a startup vibe – despite the fact almost 400, 000 people work there – so it is an open-style office set-up and we all wear casual clothes. I sat with my team facing my manager and behind the manager of my manager. I logged in around 8:30 by setting my status as “Available”. If I wanted to check my emails, which I was allowed to do for a measured amount of time, I changed my “status” in order for it to be measured as the non-productive time. From the moment I logged on to the system to the moment I logged, off, everything I did was tracked – how long it took me to complete a task, the number of tasks I completed, when I took my lunch, meetings and breaks.

Lunch had to be 30 minutes – we were permitted a three-minute window to get back to our desks. A phone call home for too long without checking the time, I had a schedule “miss” that would inevitably be brought up in my next meeting with my manager. I worried when I went to the bathroom about taking too long in case my cumulative “non-productive time” would be too high at the end of the day.

In weekly meetings we discussed my performance. I was defined in terms of my productivity, the speed at which I completed tasks and the percentage at which I adhered to the schedule. I became a series of numbers and a graph either in the red or the green – the green was the safe area. My manager crunched number and placed me in the employee rank according to those numbers.

There are pros to all of this of course: it is an incredible feat of technological efficiency that the Amazon customer can receive their order wherever and whenever they want it.

However, this efficiency comes at a huge cost in the form of tremendous pressure on the employee through dehumanizing metrics-based employee measurements and control.

Perhaps if I had been able to subscribe to the Amazonian way and if I had immersed myself in the corporate culture it would have been different.

But I saw all too clearly that Amazon’s shark-like business model is wiping out medium-sized businesses that could never offer lower prices or instant delivery services.

So I quit. I wanted to find work where I could contribute something to society, not to impoverish it. And I was not the only one who left: we started as a team of thirty and by the end of a year the team had halved in number – some transferred, many found other jobs or went back to school.

I just found it impossible to believe that this is how one is meant to live one’s life. I have now started a Masters in Investigative Journalism – yes I will have to take out two loans and be riddled with debt by the end of it but it is a small price to pay to live a life that makes sense.

A longer version of this article appears in the new issue of the Idler, Nov/Dec 2017. Buy a copy here.