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Technology isn’t just replacing employees…it’s wearing them down

A recent article in the New York Post details the harrowing routine that Amazon warehouse workers maintain. It’s a case of technology capabilities and monitoring that tracks steps, bathroom breaks, and more. In the end, some workers wear down as a result of all the scrutiny and automated competition.

It’s not just happening at Amazon. According to the article, “These so-called ‘cyborg jobs’ demand that low-wage laborers ‘crush those unuseful human parts of themselves down to atomic size.’ And this type of employment is becoming increasingly common, with Oxford University estimating in 2013 that cyborg jobs could account for 47 percent of the US workforce.” The article details experiences of worker Emily Guendelsberger at Amazon, Convergys and McDonald’s. It comes across as a whole new version of sweatshops.

With Amazon, it’s ironic. Here they are building the most “customer centric” company in the world by infusing more humanity into the commerce equation. At the same time, Amazon appears to be taking that humanity away from at least some of its employees.

The article notes, “Because of automation, human workers increasingly have to compete with computers and algorithms, Guendelsberger writes. But robots are still lacking when it comes to fine motor control and empathy. So many industries want a workforce that can ‘think, talk, feel and pick stuff up like humans — but with as few needs outside of work as robots.’ At Convergys, Guendelsberger was ‘lectured about how using the bathroom too often is the same thing as stealing from the company.’ Every bathroom visit was clocked from the moment she left her cubicle, and a daily report of her bathroom time was sent to a supervisor for approval.”

The New York Post story continues, “Amazon workers carry around a scan gun, similar to what you might see at a grocery-store checkout, with an LCD screen listing tasks and a timer counting down exactly how many seconds remain to complete each one, according to the book. ‘It also tracks your location by GPS — and you take it everywhere with you, even the bathroom,’ writes Guendelsberger. ‘Failure to stay ahead of the countdown was grounds for termination.’”

I don’t get it. Why would Amazon, whose employees also should be considered “customers,” create such a dichotomy? Apparently because they can. The company appears to be wildly successful, customers seem happy, and the model continues growing by leaps and bounds.

Here’s a thought: Back off on employee performance demands, and make fewer corporate profits. While I don’t pretend to know or understand their accounting practices, I gotta believe there’s some wiggle room. If there isn’t, Amazon should figure out how to create some.

Costco treats both customers and employees like gold, and is very successful. A number of other companies seem to thrive on the “customers AND employees first” model.

As a generally enthusiastic Amazon shopper, I’m nonetheless getting increasingly concerned about workforce treatment. It’s not enough just to employ a lot of people; you gotta treat them in a way that doesn’t harken back to the sweatshops of old.

The Amazon disparity is making me appreciate Costco that much more. Now, I find myself thinking about employee treatment when a buying decision comes down to the two. If it’s a basic tie, I’m going with Costco.

In the long run, I predict this will hurt Amazon’s profitability, particularly as new and extremely employee-enlightened companies take hold.

The clock is ticking. And consumers are keeping track. At some point, it may be Amazon’s turn to be terminated by substantial numbers of consumers unless it starts treating its workforce better.


“This is the third of a four-part series about the disconnect between Amazon’s customer service and treatment of employees. In his quest to build the world’s most customer-service-centric company, employees appear to be pushed to their limits to make sure customers get everything they want. As self-absorbed consumers—who feel entitled to get what they want ever more quickly—grow a social conscience, they’re realizing that a company’s culture includes valuing, acknowledging and respecting its employees. This will cause more people to question using Amazon until the perceived quality of the employee experience improves. I’m one of them“. ML

Mark Lusky is a veteran writer, storyteller and author, with 40+ years of public relations, advertising, marketing and journalism experience.

Author of A Wandering Wondering Jew… and co-author of Don’t Get Mad, Get Leverage,  Mark (aka The Happy Curmudgeon) is the owner of a Denver-based marketing communications firm.

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