Amazon: Is Workplace Happiness Overrated?

Is working at Amazon really that bad? Is it a workplace nightmare that belongs on its own circle of hell?

The New York Times seems to think so. According to the article, it is engaging “a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers.” It is a bombshell of an article, the most read in the Times that weekend. Perhaps it strikes a nerve in the general public because it seems so at odds with West Coast Internet company norms — all fun and games with puppies, free food and rides to work.

Amazon, not surprisingly, rejects the Times article. Prominent in CEO Jeff Bezos’ response is a link to this blog from a current employee who is praising its workplace culture. The comments on the Times website about the article are in the thousands, which present as much praise for Amazon as condemnation.

The Times is well known — at least in business-friendly circles — for hit pieces on politicians it dislikes and successful capitalist organizations, so a fair-minded person of any political persuasion should take the article with a grain of salt. And maybe I am not a fair-minded person in this regard, as a former Coca-Cola Co. executive whose company found itself in the Times' crosshairs regularly. Also, my oldest son just started working at Amazon and seems excited and content with his job. The hours are regular, he walks to work in a cool city, and every time I try to talk to him, he seems to be hanging out with his boss or co-workers at happy hour. It sounds like my kind of job.

That said, the Times — despite the spin they can put on long stories — is the most respected newspaper in the world, with immense reportorial resources, and cannot be ignored by serious people. As a positive psychology scholar and someone who has written extensively about the links between happiness in the workforce and performance, the Times’ piece presents a troubling question:

Is happiness in the workplace overrated?

A central tenet of positive psychology is that organizations that encourage positive relationships, emotions and strengths recognition outlast and outperform others. If what we read about Amazon is true, how does one reconcile this with positive psychology theory? In a matter of decades, Amazon has transformed retailing (who doesn’t have an order from Amazon on its way right now?) and has made its employees and investors billions of dollars. Happiness can wait, apparently.

Or how about investment bank Goldman Sachs, warmly referred to as the “Vampire Squid” by a former vice president? It churns and burns new hires without a second thought, according to many, but the top graduates of the top schools in the world crawl over one another to work there, as well as Amazon. Why? They are the best firms at what they do.

The same phenomenon applies in the relationship between the best, richest and most powerful U.S. law firms and top graduates of our most elite law schools. I teach a course for upper-level students at Duke Law on the role of happiness in a legal career (I am for it, by the way). It is a class with deep discussions and soul-baring essays by students questioning whether life in a big-city law firm — cutthroat with no work-life balance by nature — is for them. I don’t bash big law in the course nor try to steer students away, but invariably the very best of the students graduate, clerk for a demanding judge and head to the glass towers of Manhattan. Home life? Forget it. While they are there, however, they produce work of a volume and quality beyond the dreams of most of their millennial peers.

I remain convinced of the strong links between happiness at work and productivity and success and its importance for the vast majority of us — even if the evidence isn’t conclusive. Life is too short to work in a job you hate. However, there seems to be little doubt that among some of the most elite and successful of American firms and college graduates, happiness is little more than an afterthought.

Perhaps the emotional and psychological rules for the top of the educational and professional heap are different than for you and me. Maybe the elite really are “different from the rest of us,” to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe there is a place at which the very tops of the educational and professional pyramids intersect, and happiness doesn't really matter at all.

I will ponder that question in a future column. But first, let’s see what's streaming on Amazon Prime.