In August, 2015, the New York Times published a much-discussed and somewhat controversial article documenting the harsh working conditions facing white-collar employees at Amazon.com (Kantor and Streitfeld, 2015), a description that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and some other ‘Amazonians’ claimed was not accurate. However, there have been numerous other articles and blogs noting Amazon’s high-pressure, competitive culture (e.g., Chow, 2015). And the poor working environment in Amazon’s enormous warehouses, where people suffered workplace stress from productivity pressures and physical conditions that included inadequate ventilation, had already been well-documented (e.g., Cadwalladr, 2013). Importantly, the Times article also correctly noted that Amazon was one of the most admired companies and Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO, was typically high on lists of most admired CEOs.
Bezos and Amazon are not unique in this coexistence of success, including the plaudits of others, with harsh and harmful workplaces. As I have noted (Pfeffer, 2015), the multiple dimensions of corporate performance and reputation are not that highly correlated. For instance, only four companies made both Fortune’s most admired and best places to work lists in 2015.
The juxtaposition of admiration – and, of course, extraordinary financial success in terms of stock price appreciation and wealth creation – coupled with hellish and toxic work arrangements, reinforced a view that had been slowly taking hold: that for all the lofty values and leadership aspirations we profess to hold, there is precious little evidence that real choices and behaviour, or even hierarchies of status and awards, reflect what we espouse. Instead, numerous behaviours suggest that it seemingly doesn’t matter what an individual or a company does, to human beings or the environment, as long as they are sufficiently rich and successful. Money, indeed, trumps all. Moreover, because money can serve as a signal of competence and worth, no amount of money is ever enough. Much like a drug, money and status become addictive.