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Bruising or Beneficial: In the Amazon Debate, What Really Counts Is What You Want (From Your Employer)

Topics: Current Events
Ever since The New York Times published its scathing, 5,000-word takedown of work culture at Amazon, the topic of work-life balance has been the talk of the town. The commentary won't stop, whether it's from Amazon's most rabid defenders or passionate opponents. Even famously silent CEO Jeff Bezos has issued a response. The resulting debate has been fascinating (and probably a bit cathartic for anybody who found themselves working over the weekend), but searching for a definitive answer about whether Amazon is "good" or "bad" probably won't make a difference in your daily life or sense of job satisfaction. What you can, and should, take from the ongoing conversation is the importance of corporate culture in general and its effect on the way you think about the idea of total compensation, and ultimately, the way you negotiate salary.

Ever since The New York Times published its scathing, 5,000-word takedown of work culture at Amazon, the topic of work-life balance has been the talk of the town. The commentary won’t stop, whether it’s from Amazon’s most rabid defenders or passionate opponents. Even famously silent CEO Jeff Bezos has issued a response. The resulting debate has been fascinating (and probably a bit cathartic for anybody who found themselves working over the weekend), but searching for a definitive answer about whether Amazon is “good” or “bad” probably won’t make a difference in your daily life or sense of job satisfaction. What you can, and should, take from the ongoing conversation is the importance of corporate culture in general and its effect on the way you think about the idea of total compensation, and ultimately, the way you negotiate salary.

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(Photo Credit: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash)

No One Size Fits All When It Comes to Work Culture

Do You Know What You're Worth?

Most of the debate that rages on in comment threads and social media avenues is about whether Amazon really is as heartless and grinding as the NYT article claims, or if it is simply a data-driven meritocracy as described by its defenders. But no matter how many articles come out with passionate rally cries, take-downs of the tech industry as a whole, or rather terrifying descriptions of Amazonian bathroom culture, we won’t reach consensus on the topic. As fascinating as the conversations are to watch, neither side will ever be named the winner, because every employee perceives the culture at Amazon differently.

Some people simply like the demanding environment described in The New York Times article. Those are the people who thrive at Amazon, and other companies where long hours and late nights are part of the job. One such defender, Nick Ciubotariu, the head of infrastructure development at Amazon’s Search Experience Team, says:

“During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask me why emails aren’t answered… if these expectations were in place, and enforced upon me, I would leave.”

The key words there are “when I didn’t want to.” Some people thrive on long hours and clear metrics, and, like Ciubotariu, don’t object when faced with such. (Sure, this personality type may be more common in certain industries – how else do we explain the success of Soylent, a meal-replacement drink marketed specifically at software developers who think that obtaining solid food is too time-intensive?) For these people, the opportunity to work hard on challenging problems with blunt feedback in a cutting-edge environment, combined with a hefty paycheck, is the ideal environment, and that’s okay. There are people who live to work, especially in an industry like tech.

Work to Live or Live to Work?

But for other people, this is exactly the wrong environment for them to thrive. Some people work to live, and that’s okay, too. People who value time off, want to spend time with their families, and don’t want to think about work after they leave the office aren’t necessarily less productive than people who sleep at their desks. In fact, they might even be more effective in some cases. It’s amazing how much less time you spend checking Facebook when you have places to be and people to see at 5:30 p.m. But those people aren’t going to “fit in” in a corporate culture like the one described at Amazon for very long, no matter how much they are earning. To be fair, Amazon’s own head recruiter, Susan Harker, is pretty transparent when she says “When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.”

When your personality type doesn’t fit in with your employer, souls can be crushed and careers can stall. In a fascinating study from Erin Reid, an associate professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Management, points out that these differences are also played out in the different ways competitive firms treat men and women with family obligations:

“Women who had trouble with the work hours tended to simply take formal accommodations, reducing their work hours, but also revealing their inability to be true ideal workers, and they were consequently marginalized within the firm.”

I’m not saying that Amazon is necessarily an anti-woman culture. In fact, I know several smart women who work at Amazon and love it. (But, I also know that based on PayScale data, the controlled gender wage gap between men and women in similar jobs at Amazon is 7.9 percent, compared to the U.S. median of 2.6 percent.) What I am saying is that making smart choices about your career involves more than just picking the right job title. If you want to flourish professionally, you must work somewhere that matches your preferred work style. Amazon probably isn’t as bad or as good as differing voices proclaim. The wildly divergent viewpoints more likely point to the fact that Amazon is a great fit for some people, and a terrible fit for others – just like any other employer. (Though, they should really address pay equity. Differing “culture fit” is one thing. Paying women less overall is something very different.)

Think in Terms of Total Compensation

I spend a lot of time talking and writing about salary negotiation. And no matter the age, gender, experience level or job type of my audience, I always stress that the best negotiations, for both employee and employer, focus on total compensation, not just salary. Of course base salary, bonuses, retirement benefits and other forms of monetary compensation matter. (They matter so much so that I work for a company that has built an entire business model around helping people use data to make sure they are being paid fairly.) But as Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s article has proven, monetary compensation isn’t enough to create legions of loyal employees when other types of compensation aren’t provided in the right ratio.

There is no doubt that Amazon pays its employees well. The typical employee salary at Amazon ($130,400) is roughly twice that of the typical U.S. worker ($64,900). But the employee tenure figures that PayScale provided The New York Times also show that employees aren’t sticking around for long. Tenure at Amazon is among the lowest of the Fortune 500 companies.

Do Your Research

Smart employers put a lot of resources into finding the right employees. Smart employees should put just as much effort into finding the right employer and compensation package. PayScale data shows that high pay doesn’t guarantee employee engagement – that comes from a combination of many factors. If flexible schedules and the ability to ignore work emails after hours matter to you, it’s very possible that choosing a job that pays slightly less at a company in line with your values can end up being the better choice for you in the long run, both for your mental and fiscal health.

Loving your work or doing meaningful work is not an excuse to be underpaid. Even social workers should be earning a competitive wage based on the market for that position. But taking an inflated salary that requires a work output or sacrifice of your personal life that doesn’t work for you isn’t a winning combination either. As countless other headlines will tell you, there are plenty of employers who offer less competitive pay, but richer perks and a bigger emphasis on work-life balance, than Amazon.

If you’re lucky enough to have a skillset that employers want, it’s up to you to choose where you work and what sacrifices you make for a paycheck.

Tell Us What You Think

How much work-life balance are you willing to trade for a big paycheck? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.


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