Empathy and the Global Corporation

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Bezos

New York Times recently ran a shocking “expose” on Amazon with the ominous title “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” and the even more scary sub-heading “The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions”. The article is worth reading. There are stories of people crying at desks, of employees seen to “practically combust” (not sure what that is, but I think I get the general drift), and then this:

A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. Their accounts echoed others from workers who had suffered health crises and felt they had also been judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.

A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. “What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses.

To counter this corporate PR disaster, Jeff Bezos then sent a note to  his employees, where he referenced a LinkedIn post of an employee who wrote a rebuttal. While taking issue with some nominal factual inaccuracies, what the Amazon-employee says isn’t radically different from what the New York Times article tried to put forward. Ezra Klein in his excellent post on Vox explains why he thinks that’s the case [Link] (I agree) but here is my very personalized TLDR.

The Amazon employee, if you go through the note, is not really challenging the basic premise of the story. All that the man is saying, and many would agree with him, is this.

“Yeah these sissies are complaining cause they were not good enough to work in the greatest company on the world (To quote: Not everyone is qualified to work here, or will rise to the challenge. But that doesn’t mean we’re Draconian or evil. Not everyone gets into Harvard, either, or graduates from there. Same principles apply) but there are many people who are great at their work here, are motivated to work nights and weekends, and feel adequately compensated by it.  Take the heat or get out of the kitchen.  Booyakasha”.

Without judging the tone and tenor of his post, or sentences like “Yes. Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world” (Psst Tesla) , I find the employee’s very alpha-male response extremely honest, as it pretty much lays out the world view of those that “win” in our present corporate environment.

James T. Kirk: Why would a Starfleet admiral ask a three-hundred-year-old frozen man for help?
Khan: Because I am better.
James T. Kirk: At what?
Khan: Everything.

Yeah. That kind.

 

What I am less comfortable with is what’s in Jeff Bezos’s note.

NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day

Here is why I am not comfortable. Companies aren’t people (sorry Citizens United). People have empathy. Institutions, that exist with a profit motive, don’t. And Mr. Bezos knows this I am guessing.

Why isnt this his company? [Link]

Elmer Goris spent a year working in Amazon.com’s Lehigh Valley warehouse, where books, CDs and various other products are packed and shipped to customers who order from the world’s largest online retailer.

The 34-year-old Allentown resident, who has worked in warehouses for more than 10 years, said he quit in July because he was frustrated with the heat and demands that he work mandatory overtime. Working conditions at the warehouse got worse earlier this year, especially during summer heat waves when heat in the warehouse soared above 100 degrees, he said.

He got light-headed, he said, and his legs cramped, symptoms he never experienced in previous warehouse jobs. One hot day, Goris said, he saw a co-worker pass out at the water fountain. On other hot days, he saw paramedics bring people out of the warehouse in wheelchairs and on stretchers

And this?

Workers said they were forced to endure brutal heat inside the sprawling warehouse and were pushed to work at a pace many could not sustain. Employees were frequently reprimanded regarding their productivity and threatened with termination, workers said. The consequences of not meeting work expectations were regularly on display, as employees lost their jobs and got escorted out of the warehouse. Such sights encouraged some workers to conceal pain and push through injury lest they get fired as well, workers said.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

It’s easy to vilify Mr. Bezos as a heartless curmudgeon. And I am not going to. (I have an Amazon Prime membership). There is a villain here of course (all stories have them). And I am going to get there, in the time I can order something off Amazon and get it delivered to my door.

Just bear with me.

The model of corporate “benevolence” that people seem to want to hark back to is largely a romanticized ideal of the American mega- corporation in the 50s and the 60s. It was said, with some truth perhaps, that if an American worked hard and honest, he was assured of the “American way of life”, a house of his own, a car and a comfortable standard of living. Unions were strong, people still worked in manufacturing factories, and work-hours were sacrosanct. You showed up, punched in, did your work, punched out, and if your effort was honest and you didn’t steal time (or not too much), well then you were Ah-ok. Salaries were more or less even, and of course the topdogs made quite a bit though not an obscene amount more, and if that bothered you a lot, why you could go to Russia.

Then things began to change. First there was the politics. As long as the Cold War had been on, the American establishment felt obliged to show to the world and to themselves that the American working middle-class was the happiest in the world. It was one of the reasons why Communism fell, because after some time it became obvious that “capitalism” of the American kind works better for the proletariat than slave-labor-camps and communes and Politburo diktats. But once the point had been made, the American ruling class no longer really cared to keep up the pretense. Big business slowly but surely started working away at the unions, labor rights, tariff barriers and the other pesky things that get in the way of truly having fun.

Then came a new age of industrial automation through pervasive computerization and a whole lot of other manufacturing technologies that stylish tech-types would nowadays call “disruptive”. With that came that sinister word into popular lexicon.

Globalization.

The American worker found himself competing with men and women who could work hundred hour work-weeks at cents per hour, with babies strapped around their backs. Companies that still had strong unions sunk, those with weak unions renegotiated their way out. The American worker started working more for less, the forty hours became just a paper construct, and yet jobs flew away, never to return, and then Detroit happened.

Wait, you say. We know all this. I am sure you do.

But this lays the context for what Amazon and many others like them are trying to  implement. The idea is not new, and it’s not rocket-science either. It’s just that the tech has finally caught up with the concept.

Let me explain.

In this world-view, you are not dealing with human beings any more. You are dealing with resources. Human beings are like…let’s say printers. You want to print out a document. There are three network printers. You see which one is not busy, you send that resource the job. There is a printer you believe is consuming too much ink. You measure printer performance, quality of print-outs, speed, with particular attention to how many pages you get out of a cartridge and the cost of cartridge. You calculate a cost per page of printing. The printer that has the highest cost per page is thrown into the dustbin, and a new printer bought. Sure you have to call in a technician to install it, and the printer costs something too, but you know that within a thousand pages (that’s what your analytics package tells you) the printer will recover that startup cost. Oh blimey. The paper keeps jamming in this printer. Junk this one too.

The challenge behind implementing this resource-driven world-view (human resource wink wink) is primarily technological. You have the problem of allocation (how do you optimize the sending of jobs to free resources) and you have the problem of measurement and decision (how do you measure which printer is “best” and how do you take decisions based on that?). It is not a coincidence that Amazon, which is primarily a retailer, has invested so much into tech. Solve these problems (or solve it better than your competitors) and you are future-proof, for a while at least.

First. Allocation.

From “Working Anything but 9 to 5: Scheduling Technology Leaves Low-Income Parents With Hours of Chaos” [Link]

Like increasing numbers of low-income mothers and fathers, Ms. Navarro is at the center of a new collision that pits sophisticated workplace technology against some fundamental requirements of parenting, with particularly harsh consequences for poor single mothers. Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing.

Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. “It’s like magic,” said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.

Then measurement. Once upon a time, salesmen were the only ones I can think of who would continually be measured for performance. That’s because it was easy to measure their productivity. Volume of sales. Nowadays corporations are devising measures for everyone, and the lower you are in the food chain, the more you are measured. Those who have worked in call centers know what I am talking about. At retail stores, cashiers see running measures of their performance (basically how fast they are doing checkouts), and their continual employment or bonuses are dependent on staying above the average. Technology now makes it possible to continually monitor multiple sensors for data and calculate, often in real time, these metrices of performance. The companies call this instant feedback, (much of the NYT article is about Amazon’s real-time feedback system) and sometimes, just because they can be heartless, gamification.

We, of course, know what it is. The ticking timebomb on your job.

Now if you ask a captain of industry, or two, they will say that data-driven evaluations are, by definition, the most fair, removing subjectivity and bias and human error. This seems to sound kind of okay till you realize that the lower you are in the food chain, more your risk from such a metric-based evaluation system. The single mother moving the produce across the scanning machine is being judged purely on how fast her hands are moving, and how few times she has to call her manager. She has a single point of failure, herself, and so if she drops below the red-line because she has a splitting tooth-ache she can’t root-canal because she has no money to go to the dentist, she gets the pink slip.  Her manager’s risk is distributed through the employees she manages, the area managers by the stores he manages. Which is why the higher you rise, the more likely you are to make your numbers,  and the more likely you are to write self-congratulatory posts on Linkedin and castigate the slackers.

There is a little catch here. Since industry would like you to believe that compensation is linked purely to merit and value to company, one would have to assume the the productivity/value to company of a CEO has increased by 997% from 1978 (because salaries have) (Link) and in any year a CEO has earned, by dint of his numbers, 303 times more than the average worker. (Link).

The numbers above are worth giving a second to because it shows how the whole value-to-company “data driven” system is calibrated to benefit those at the top. It is not surprising then that the most passionate defenses of Amazon and similar companies come from the Brahmins of the company, those that get paid the most, because they have been made to believe, through the whole data-driven mumbo jumbo that they are, LO’Real style, “worth it”. The touchy-feely “we care” side of the company is exposed only to them, which is why they are genuinely gobsmacked when they hear of other employees in the same organization having radically different experiences. For instance Netflix rolled out paid maternity leave to its employees but only in its online streaming side, not the humble DVD-packers or the customer-service reps [Link]. I am sure there is some data-scientist (or a few) who earned their pay here, and a bunch of employees rolling their eyes at the complainers and moochers.

Which brings me to the point of the post. Empathy.

The modern organization, and specially the post-modern one that visionaries like Bezos dream of, do not plan for empathy. Yes empathy needs to be planned for, else it is just a nice word in a CEO note. Empathy means designing redundancy into an organization, such that the lady who has had a stillborn child is allowed a period of “low performance” because there is someone else who can pick up that work, without making that someone else burn out. That kind of planning of course almost never happens in the modern organization, especially for those at the lower end of the value scale, because the mantra is of leanness, of being pared to the bone, with no redundant cost-centers.

And if you think this is bad, you haven’t seen the future yet. The next wave of automation is rumbling to shore, and Amazon is at the crest of that. Bezos will solve the Dickensian problem of workers fainting in the heat of their warehouses by replacing them with armies of robots. I have seen personally robots that implement what’s called “deep learning” and while these are research prototypes with limited functionality I have seen, the potential is truly scary. Outside the factory, Bezos will use drones for one-hour-deliveries to compete with Walmart, and you can be sure that Walmart, a company not known for its empathy, will fight back with more paring-to-the-bone, creating a hellish race for empathy rock-bottom.

For those of you engineers who are popping a beer and thinking “Haha losers”, they are going to come for you too. Remember the lucrative profession of “data entry operators”? No? Well there is a reason for that. Low-level testing jobs, the button pressing and running through scripts, are, as you read this, on the way out as sophisticated testing automaton tools become integrated into the development life-cycle. And it’s not just testing. While program-synthesis (gross oversimplification of what synthesis is: computers generating code based on a provided set of input-output sequences) has remained a pipe-dream for decades, we have now have reached the stage where the first practical implementations of program synthesis  are being realized in commercial products, like Flash Fill in Excel. Which means, developers and programmers, come back in twenty years time, and tell me whether you are still a winner or part of the DVD-packing unit.

Let’s all accept this. Humans are flaky resources. They complain, break down at desks, faint during peak packing season, bad-mouth you to NYT, and get pregnant. Any dude who makes 303 times more than normal humans know that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is one where such flaky resources are replaced with predictable, plannable, big-data-friendly automatons.

I’ll be back.

So who is the villain here? Its not Bezos, or any of his extremely rich friends, or the Harvard MBAs who consider themselves Olympian Gods.

No it’s me. (Actually I mean you)

You see, I don’t want to deal with humans when I go to shop. I want to deal with a corporation. If I order on Amazon Prime, I expect my stuff delivered within two business days, and I couldn’t care less if you delivered your baby on the shop floor to make it happen. Tough luck, next time I will buy from Overstock. If I am at my Target checkout, the last thing I want to see is some new hire, unable to swipe a simple item and calling her supervisor for a price check, while my daughter is having a temper tantrum. If my food is cold or not done the way I want, I send it back, and I don’t care whose salary it comes from.  If I want to cancel my Comcast cable account, I want to cancel it, not have to deal with an hour-long “Please stay” from an account retention executive, who is struggling to make her target and is in danger of losing her contract.

See the pattern here? I don’t have empathy when dealing with businesses and yet expect Bezos to run an organization that does.

Because no one really wants empathy, unless it’s they are talking about their own workplace. The socialist model was all about redundancy and empathy and work-life balance and more equitable pay. How has that worked? Not well.

Businesses that put employees before customers are not the people we want to buy from.

Businesses that put employees before shareholders are not the people we want to invest in.

Fun fact. People want to work for socialists but not conduct business with them. For good reason too.

They kind of suck.

And in a season where the Trump fire rages on in the US, it is doubly ironic to talk about empathy.  Trump might not win in the end, but there is no doubt that his message, which can be summed as “America does not win because it has too much empathy. We need to fire some losers like I do in my show Apprentice”, is wildly popular, because many Americans, quite a few of them being the same people dubbed as “non-performing assets” by the corporations they worked for (that’s the irony part), want the same model to be applied to the country.

Because they do believe that ruthless capitalism is the best way for success.

Whether a country can be a corporation, to be run with a profit motive, is a topic for another day, but there is no doubt that of all the things that are redundant in the lean corporation of the future, there is nothing more redundant than empathy (unless it’s an euphemism for a component of a corporate benefit package to be given to that Stanford hire).

So stop hating people. And get with the game.

 

 

 

 

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53 thoughts on “Empathy and the Global Corporation

  1. Really, really interesting post! And I agree. The process of “rationalising” everything has made us less empathetic without us even realising, which includes the customers too. There’s a fantastic short story by EM Forster called “The Machine Stops”. I would recommend you read it, in case you haven’t already.

    Also, do I get an iPod or an iPad? 😉

  2. I had similar thoughts, though not as elaborate as yours, when I read about this Amazon issue over the weekend. What scared me last year, when i visited India, and now when i see the average american here, is the lack of proper jobs for common folks.. the high school dropouts. We will end up creating a large group of people who are payed less and have no respite. This is not good.. and will ultimately result in some sort of uproar and urest.

  3. I worked for Kronos for number of years.. Did not know their scheduling solution works that well (or lacks empathy).

    The company itself after being acquired by a private equity firm, lacked all his empathy.

    But they are recession proof company. People still need to get paid or scheduled in times of recession.

    So they are doing well.

  4. So to have empathy on work-floor, we should purposefully choose costlier products? So it is villainous on my part to expect best quality at lowest possible price?

    I am a bit surprised to see that the name of Ayn-Rand does not appear even once in a blog like this.

    • No, don’t purposefully chose costlier products. But the next time your boss (assuming you have one) shows lack of empathy for you when you desperately need it, accept his lack of empathy as cheerfully as you accept discounted prices.

    • You seem to be obsessed with Ayn Rand. I don’t have any views on her, but most well-read, mature adults (i.e..whose reading list is not limited to Rand and CBag) will tell you that her books are meant to be enjoyed during adolescence and forgotten after crossing the age of 21. Taking this libertarian bible seriously is as much of a folly as taking seriously the bible of maoists – Das Kapital.

  5. A lot of Americans shop at Costco instead of Walmart due to Costco being perceived as giving its workers a better deal. Is that empathy or just marketing?

  6. Totally agree here! The ones whining are the the lower rung doc writers, testers and warehouse operations personnel. The high and mighty R&D units get the better side of Amazon. This is not to say everybody at Amazon is not pushed to their limits. Hell their infamous pager duty concept was the sole reason I hated my life for a good 2 years. When I left, I thought good riddance but my resume now bears a star. I get a shoe in on most tech giants for interviews. Not to forget my colleagues have gone on to do amazing things in India and globally – the likes of Sachin Bansal, Vikas Gupta, Vishal Mehta are all Amazon Alumni. There is something to be said of metal that bakes at high heat..

  7. I have been reading your blogs and now twitter from past 7-8 years or more. This is one of best one. Thought provoking and one needs to read twice to get the depth of it. Shame it is not in new Yorker, NYT, WSJ, ET, TOI etc. this needs to be read by all and sundry.

    So who is the villain here, was the best part. Now question, I always got a feeling that you had great dislike for commies of Kolkata(and same extended for Didi, as she is following the same pattern), you think they are getting vindicated ?

      • @Arnab, Sorry I did not get your answer. I interpreted Sam’s question as: Is Didi/Jyoti vindicated? They were all for ultimate empathy, you see. Kindness to all and such warm and fuzzy stuff.

      • I don’t think you can enforce kindness or empathy from top-down. It should come naturally within, voluntarily. OTOH, Bezos runs the company quite top-down. He may think it is better for his company. But that is not necessarily true.

  8. Yes, automation is going to wipe out a large number of jobs (watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU)
    But the response to that is not to oppose automation or to criticise those who aggressively pursue automation. The govts need to create a safety net for those who will lose their jobs. Eventually, most of us will be in that safety net. None of us will need to work. All our basic needs (and beyond) will be taken care of by the collective. Robots will grow crops, mine the earth, produce goods, deliver them to our doorstep, build houses, roads, bridges, etc. and take us from one place to another. Basically do everything that humans do currently. We will just while away our time reading, writing, watching movies, traveling and spending time with our loved ones. It is not just a bad world, actually. Clearly, the world has enough resources to feed and sustain the current population. So, as long as you maintain the population at this level (which means, robots will have to strictly enforce a limit of 2 children per couple), the above mentioned scenario is feasible. If anything, since robots will be doing most of the production and distribution, inefficiencies will be reduced, so we can improve the living standards of people with the existing level of resources.
    The above scenario may look like socialism/communism, but that’s fine. It will be ironic though, if all this technological progress achieved through aggressive capitalism will ultimately lead to a communist society where people will get paid for doing nothing.

  9. Great post. One counter example that came to mind though was Southwest. That company puts employees first and still wins. While it is true that the customer demands more for less, it is also true that the change in culture is driven from the top.

  10. Excellent post! I think along the same lines when we outrage over slave labor in chinese apple factories but, don’t want iphones that cost $500 or less. It’s high time we realize that we cannot have it both ways. Thanks for driving home the point so eloquently.

  11. How about some extended analysis on how we as humans reached this stage? And while we are on that path, how about a novel on how this is going to play out eventually – apocalyptic dystopia or steady-state Utopia (maybe one version for each)?
    What? You expected me to have empathy for your time constraints? ☺

  12. Excellent writing Arnab and nailing this drive of lack of empathy, to us, the customer. How is the script played by Amazon different to the relentless march of other pioneers/technologies which resulted in automation of farm jobs, automation of blue collar jobs? 2 centuries ago peoples’ career centred around farming. At one point in history the farmer tilling the land was a single point failure to farm productivity. And as you said, the next automation round the corner would lead to the automation of white collar jobs. Surely when automation happens,there is a temporary phase when people lives gets impacted but in the long term, we re-skill, up skill ourselves and move to higher productivity jobs, which also leads to a fresh spurt of creativity and increases the base knowledge level of the society. I reckon that in 2-3 decades, to be considered literate, (advanced) computer programming would be necessary as is reading/writing today.

  13. I would like to point out few errors/misrepresentations here :

    “There is a little catch here. Since industry would like you to believe that compensation is linked purely to merit and value to company, one would have to assume the the productivity/value to company of a CEO has increased by 997% from 1978 (because salaries have) (Link) and in any year a CEO has earned, by dint of his numbers, 303 times more than the average worker. (Link).”

    No one would ever say pay is linked to merit, it is always linked to value and the value is never how much value a person is adding but how much value his replacement may add. It is common for employees to b fired because new employee can do even better job.

    In most jobs like janitors or burger flipper the next person is likely to do just fine job and hence would be easily replaceable and can always increase that opportunity cost of firing by either working long hours or in bad conditions as mentioned by the NYT article. (Government has made it illegal to compete on price by setting minimum wages and many other interventions.)

    The case with CEOs is always very different. The opportunity cost of firing a CEO is very high because the new CEO may or may not do better job. So the Board of Directors always see a point in keeping the CEO happy and paying him more and more each year for increasing the total wealth of company.

    Do look at Ben & Jerry’s who decides that CEO pay must be linked to lowest paid wages in the company and eventually wrecked the company twice.

    • LOL Sahana. Managers are similarly replaceable and no the opportunity cost (do you even know what that means?) has nothing to do with it. Your same asinine logic for CEOs work for burger-flippers. If you really want to point out a few errors, you might do well to look at the mirror and start fixing it. Before you ask, have worked in GS and now work in a hedge fund. Interned as a student at Amazon and before that at a company called Real Networks.

      • If I apply bullshit filter to your comment, I get a null string as result.

        I would like someone to point out where I am wrong but I dont get anything other than rhetoric. The fact that your a yuppie, a paanwala or billionaire means little to the quality of your arguments.

  14. “… I have seen, the potential is truly scary.” After working in R&D for all these years and seeing first hand the things we are doing, I constantly tell this to my wife – “we are not leaving the world as a better place for our children and this gives me shivers”. What frustrates me further is that people are not seeing & analyzing what is coming.

  15. excellent analysis of present work place scenario. i have been reading your blogs for years and has been my savouring your older psts in free time. great witing and analytical skill. Hats off.

  16. Excellent read. A thought provoking post that requires the reader to introspect. While people were quick to pick sides on this debate, what is really required is introspection.

  17. What? They have ambulances to take care of the workers? And still complaining? Hmmm. They would love these jobs in third world countries. Complainers!!
    Well the best job in USA is that of the handy man. I have paid $1.2K in single day for appliance installs ystdy. Seriously. I should go to handyman school instead of testing/automation school 😦

  18. @Sam: the communist/socialism brings in all the rights but no incentives (profits) and induces laziness in the worker. A doctor is same as handyman or a musician or programmer. Even if I were to work that hard, all I will get is same wages as everyone else and same lifestyle as everyone else (all are equal instead of some are more equal in capitalism…lol). Most of the Europe today is struggling from this tamas (laziness) and having unemployment (what will happen if you need 12 week vacations and all) poorly performing economies. Arnub knows a thing or two because uska baap economist hai (similar to Amitabh bachchan dialogue in a movie) hahaha.
    So solution: we cannot have rampant capitalism (some footballers and musicians or kim kardasians in USA are stinking rich where as there are slums and extreme poverty/hunger in other parts) or communism either. What we need is in between system. A little bit of this and little bit of that….

  19. The thing to notice is Jeff Bezos says it like it is (instead of having one image in media and another one while operating the company). In most other places, the companies speak from both ends of their mouths. They may have companies “rules” posted all over the portal and website (about empathy; e.g. work-life balance etc) to portray large-heartedness (image they want to put forth in media as best place to work yada yada) but then there are no consequences to slave driving managers in the same company. I got “stuck” in such a place and after a lot of complains to the higher ups and no change in my immediate manager, I ended up quitting. So unless you are deemed absolutely indepensable (which no one really is) by people up high, you have a choice to quit and they have a choice to let you go if you “complain” too much. And the next place might be the same. So grin it and bear it. Or start your own business (like handyman job hahah) to market your own skill sets.

    • Henry Ford was credited with inventing the assembly line for mass production of automobiles. Jeff Bezos seems to be the man driving the assembly line (filling cutomer orders) into an efficient operation.

      I too am amazed at the amount of money charged by a handyman in the U.S.

  20. I think these are labour pains before humans create a fully automated work environment. In the not so distant future, all manual labour will be done by robots and all repetitive calculations will be done by computers. Most of the work can be done using a combination of the two.

    Almost all humans will be unemployed. The only people who will still have jobs(atleast for a few more years) are those who can operate/repair those machines, scientists/engineers on the cutting edge of innovation or Artists making movies/music etc. The multinational corporations and their majority shareholders will have all the money/resources.

    In such as world a new form of government would be needed which combines Socialism and Capitalism in a unique way. The capitalists should have enough incentive to keep running the robots, while the regular people should have enough resources to lead a comfortable life.

  21. “You see, I don’t want to deal with humans when I go to shop. I want to deal with a corporation. If I order on Amazon Prime, I expect my stuff delivered within two business days, and I couldn’t care less if you delivered your baby on the shop floor to make it happen. Tough luck, next time I will buy from Overstock. If I am at my Target checkout, the last thing I want to see is some new hire, unable to swipe a simple item and calling her supervisor for a price check, while my daughter is having a temper tantrum. If my food is cold or not done the way I want, I send it back, and I don’t care whose salary it comes from.”
    First of all never, never, NEVER send food back. I have authentic souces who work in restaurant tell me that what comes back in second round has spit, dirt…yhea right…take that. One instance of not rare enough steak got stamped on gtound before making it back to customer table! and this at 7 star restaurant/hotel. So be careful.
    I always select free shipping at amazon (which can take anywhere from 5 to 7 days or more if it is coming from overseas) and I am sure most people do that because for 2 day shipping you have to pay a whole lot of money.
    Secondly the whole argument that consumer is at fault is a faulty and full of holes. The corporations can make profit two ways. One is to increase price. The second is to cut cost. In the razor edge margins and cut throat competition increasing price of commodity is near impossible. so then cutting costs becomes a holy grail. What Jeff Bezos and all are doing is just that. not putting proper fans in warehouse for instance to save costs. Not having enough trained checkout agents while new agents are also getting OJT (on job training). Keeping low staff that is underpaid etc. As a consumer who is in checkout lane of target or walmart or amazon, I do not want to witness employer flogging its employee and at the same time I do not want to see a very tardy, lazy employee either. In many of the minimal pay job (from burger flipper to checkout clerk), what I see regularly is a person who wants to pay but has no desire/interest to serve. Once at McDonalds I got literally 6 french fries in the small FF serving. When I asked the teenager, he said it will take another 30 minutes for the new batch to be ready and he had no care or concern about the paying customer. In short run a company life Amazon can make lot of money, grow but ultimately it is the empathy aspects that will keep the business afloat in long run. If employees have no personal stake in the business, they will care less. I have friends/family, who work round the clock at google at the cost of spending time with their family members but do so very-very gladly because they are laughing all the way to the bank.

    • lot of typos in above comment. The point I was trying to make was Jeff Bezos can make profit but it is his greed to make insane amount of profit (extreme cost cutting and extreme working conditions for instance slave driving in hot warehouses etc) that is a culprit here. Sure a breast cancer patient will cost company initial cost but the very same employee, once cancer free will work with great loyalty and possibly attract similar talented people to come and work for the same company at even slightly lesser pay. What companies then need to realize is that along with land, property, equipment, warehouse, the people who work for them are also their assets and investing in them, in LONG run can only result in more profits. I had once a right-aid pharmacy or staff insult me in racist terms. Since that day 15 years ago, I haven’t stepped into the rite-aid store. So that particular company lost a life-paying customer. If amazon’s employees get vicious, it may ultimately lose me, its valued-paying customer. So in the end, by investing in your people/workers/assets, you are also investing in your profits by increased customer satisfaction.

  22. One aspect of about “de-empathized” corporations that has been overlooked. It is the stripping away of “empathies” and judging people based on their utility that has allowed capable “outsiders” to make their way in corporate America.

    One suspects that a company with empathy would be most empathetic to “insiders” (those of the same ethnicity, those who went to the same schools etc.)

  23. Very good!! I love the “No it’s me. (Actually I mean you)” bit!
    WE have no empathy and WE have no patience anymore…..WE think money is what WE need and it is the solution to everything in life…
    Stupid WE!
    ;-))
    d

  24. I don’t think the world is becoming more hard hearted but rather the small people are being heard a little louder.

    In the 1980s, growing up in India, the US was, in my young eyes, THE blessed land. Americans with a basic education (not just engineers / doctors) could realistically expect a steady job, white picket fenced house in the suburbs, a car in the garage, a working telephone and chicken in the oven. These were a distant dream, for even an engineer / doctor in India.

    However, this may have been the lifestyle of only certain folks in the US, i.e. the middle class (which class may have now moved on to management positions).

    It is not clear how many single mothers, really had the white picket fence lifestyle back in the day. What is clear though, is that such people were largely absent from the media and did not form hot topics for conversation. Today, that picture has changed and the rights of the not so well off, to be treated fairly at a basic human level, like time off to recover from health challenges is at least being discussed.

    At a personal level, we actually don’t need a Multi – National Corporation (MNC) to really de – empathize ourselves, at least in India. We treat our maid servants with equal, if not greater lack of empathy, as we ourselves face.

    Even here, though, the situation in not static, the maid servants / drivers / gardners have more opportunities in India, like in organized retail and are increasingly demanding better work conditions. Social media is also adding to the positive pressure to treat all people better.

  25. GB lives in USA, where Americans do not engage much in the typical Indian party conversation template “the system sucks, it’s all our fault”. The nicest part of this nebulous “us” is that it uniformly includes people whose mail ordering activity may range across five orders of magnitude (money or activities per time unit). Bhaager ma gonga pai na. If it’s “our” fault, and we do know who “we” are, nobody has to do anything, and the case is solv-ed. So the Indian party conversation could not have gone any other way. Yawn.

  26. I cannot speak to the South Asian experience, being US-born & raised. That said, I suspect that the British East India Company was not a philanthropic foundation.

    But I can point out that, not all that many years ago, the US was the center of what was arguably one of the most brutal manifestations of Big Business’ genetic disposition to sacrifice workers for profit — the “Robber Barons” of US Steel, Ford Motors, Standard Oil, etc, in the late 1890s-early 1900s.
    Which led to the rise of unions and federal government regulations.

    One wonders what the reaction from workers will be to Bezos and his fellow Robber Barons.

    Lest we forget our own history.

  27. I’ve been following Great Bong’s blog for a long time, and this is certainly one of the best, if not The best. Echoes a lot of the thoughts in my own mind, but in a much more precise, detailed and analytical way.
    Being employed in one such corporation myself, I can attest to the truth behind all this. The future for the overwhelmingly vast majority of us, and our coming generations, is very, very, very bleak.
    I would like to humbly and timidly submit that in my personal opinion, there are three major dangers confronting mankind today — Capitalism of the variety that is the subject of this blog post, Global Warming and attendant environmental degradation, and rising Islamism. Wonder which is the worst of the three.

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