Kristi Coulter’s new memoir shows, with wit, insight and heart, how workers are systematically pulled apart on the rack of their own drive for success. And yet, the book remains a guide to—and celebration of—success at Amazon (AMZN) rather than an effort to question the structure of achievement and labor that it shows quite clearly is inequitable and cruel.
Exit Interview: The Life and Death of My Amazon Career is very much Coulter’s story. She worked at Amazon from 2006 to 2018 in a range of managerial roles. She helped launch Amazon’s own publishing imprint, wrote copy for Amazon’s grocery business, interviewed new hires and trained executives. As a self-described “grinder…hand raiser” and “doer of extra-credit assignments,” Coulter loved Amazon’s fast-paced environment and the way it encouraged its employees to take on impossible tasks and change the world.
But she openly acknowledges that Amazon was also chaotic, callous and brutally indifferent to the well-being or happiness of its employees. In one telling anecdote, Coulter introduces a number of young, fresh-out-of-college writers to senior vice president of retail Jeff Wilke. Wilke thinks using young talent is a good idea provisionally, but says “the minute [the college grads] stop being profitable to us, those heads are gone.” He makes this cold-hearted statement directly to the college grads themselves. “Welcome to Amazon, kids,” Coulter writes ruefully, “where the provisionality of your existence is right out in the open.”
Amazon, Coulter shows, is particularly indifferent to the existence of its female employees—something apparently supported by the overall culture of the company. (“Everyone wants to act really tough and pretend they don’t have human needs,” Coulter told Bloomberg in 2019.) Salary discrimination also appears to be rampant, at least according to the book; one not-especially-competent man who reports to Coulter earns $40,000 more than her.
Coulter provided background material for a 2015 New York Times article that reported on Amazon’s alleged culture of cruelty and sexism: one woman was put on probation after a miscarriage, while another was told that having children was an error that would wreck her career. CEO Jeff Bezos responded to the article by sending a company-wide email saying he didn’t believe the allegations. He then linked to a social media post by a random Amazon dude named Nick who blithely insisted that Amazon can’t be sexist because, in Coulter’s paraphrase, “Amazon makes decisions based on data, and data is science, and science is gender neutral.”
Amazon’s workplace culture is now infamous; much less was known about it when Coulter started at the company. She had little to do with Amazon’s warehouses and wasn’t aware of the horrific conditions until they hit the news in 2011. Then she, like the rest of the country, read about employees cooking in hundred-degree heat without any reduction in production quotas or forced to pee in bottles because they weren’t allowed to take bathroom breaks.
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As soon as she hears of these abuses, Coulter thinks “Yes, I can believe all that happened.” As a white-collar manager, she isn’t tortured in this way. But, as she explains in the book, she knows Amazon also sees her as a cog to grind down, rather than as a person. She is horrified by what she hears. But then she’s sucked into her own “anxiety vortex…and the warehouses vanish from my mind for another few years.”
Coulter understands this sounds callous; she acknowledges a failure. But acknowledging it doesn’t make it go away. It’s hard not to juxtapose her brief discussion of warehouse workers against passages in which she writes about her extremely generous compensation or her husband’s booming calendar software startup.
Coulter’s time at Amazon is miserable in many ways—the stress sends her alcoholism spiraling out of control, for starters. But Amazon also provides her with valuable experience and contacts in the book industry that stand her in good stead when she returns to her long-abandoned writing career. Amazon money and Amazon contacts are part of a recognizable path to self-actualization. She remains at the conclusion of the book the same doer of extra-credit, who still believes that work is “a place to channel my passions and find new ones.”
Work for Coulter remains a venue primarily for individual achievement and fulfillment. In her world, Amazon is immoral to the extent that it puts barriers in the way of that fulfillment and rewarding to the extent that it facilitated her success. She is able to see sexism as a structure of injustice. But exploitive work isn’t a structure so much as a kind of error.
Amazon, in Coulter’s telling, is a singular broken culture, not an indication of a wider problem. As a result, she has trouble making the move from her own misery to a broader solidarity. The word “union” is never mentioned in the book in reference to labor organizing. Coulter talks about Jeff Bezos’ billions, but never attempts to link them to the exploitive treatment of workers.
At the very end of the book, Coulter says Amazon might have been a better place if Bezos had been as human as he appeared during the sexting scandal that made news shortly after her departure from the company. But of course, few things are more human than greed, either for money or for power. Those workers peeing in bottles; those college grads threatened openly with termination; the stress that pushed Coulter into addiction—Coulter oddly doesn’t see them as anything more than symptoms of dysfunctional workplace culture.
Coulter’s ambition and drive to succeed served Bezos’ vision well. She fired employees for him; she found efficiencies that made more money. And even now that she’s escaped his direct control, she writes eloquently, amusingly and persuasively about the satisfaction of winning at work, of finding her own path, of becoming a great success and pursuing her dreams—as a writer, as a businessperson, as an entrepreneur. Labor, for Coulter, is something that you leverage to succeed as an individual, rather than something that connects you to other workers in solidarity and struggle. Even though Coulter eviscerates Amazon in many respects, the overall message in Exit Interview is one that Bezos and his ilk can support.
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