The NY Times had an article today about the work culture at Amazon, a modern day sweat-shop.  Workers describe 80+ hour workweeks and a culture of expecting people to answer emails immediately, regardless of the time they are sent.  The article reports that workers who get ill, or have children or sick family members are routinely forced out and told their performance is lacking as their priority is clearly not work.  What struck me was not that these conditions exist, but that Amazon’s leadership seems proud of these conditions and believes they help to make Amazon more competitive.

The ultimate goal is to become an “Amabot”–an employee who “has become one with the system” and, apparently, no longer has human needs beyond reaching higher heights for the company.

One of the core beliefs is that “conflict brings innovation” so workers are encouraged to be highly and vocally critical of each other.  Workers are also encouraged to rat each other out by reporting fellow employees who aren’t working hard enough.  Not surprisingly, Amazon has few women in top leadership positions—as the Lord of the Flies environment hardly seems one in which women (or men) will flourish—and seems one where sexism  goes unchecked. The anonymous reporting system appears to be full of abuses and targeting of employees who aren’t liked for whatever reason.

After reading the stories, I was struck by how much the internal working environment at Amazon seems similar to stories of living under repressive communist regimes.  The big exceptions are that employees can leave and don’t risk imprisonment or death.  But, the daily oppression and fear seems to me to be so counterproductive to what Amazon claims to want:  innovation.

I also question the belief that conflict brings innovation—especially when the conflict is unnecessary and seems almost artificially created.  Workplaces don’t have to ratchet up the conflict levels (as Amazon seems to be proudly doing) to get innovation.  Amazon’s response is employees who rave about the exhilarating environment and how they pushed themselves to heights they didn’t know they could get to.  Of course, not everyone is so happy.  Amazon also suffers high turn-over rates.

The workers who rave about the brutal working environment remind me of some of my law students who claim that my “on-call” system in my first year criminal law class deprives them of fear and therefore they don’t work as hard.  Every year a few students tell me that they don’t learn as much as they would if I did a random system so they wouldn’t know in advance if they were going to be called on.  I am told, “I wasn’t scared coming into your class on the days I wasn’t on-call so I didn’t always do the reading.”  Which is a reminder that some folks do seem to need fear to motivate them.  Which may be why Amazon has a steady stream of employees.  These are the folks who think that fear, anxiety, stress, long working hours, and conflict are what make them get better.

I am in what I suspect is a much larger group of people who finds fear the opposite of motivating and find it instead helps to shut down innovative and creative thinking.  It seems much of Silicon Valley agrees–as the workplaces at Google and Facebook seem far removed from the conflict values at Amazon.

Cyntha Alkon is an Associate Professor of Law at Texas A&M University School of Law. Prior to joining academia, she was a criminal defense lawyer and worked in rule of law development in Eastern Europe and Central Asia focusing on criminal justice reform issues. She is a contributor of ADR Prof Blog.