How Much Sympathy Do Overwhelmed White-Collar Workers Deserve?

Actually, a good amount: Belittling their plight by comparing it to blue-collar workers’ ignores the trickle-down harms of an exhausting work culture.

Arko Datta / Reuters

Over the past few decades, workers without college degrees have not only seen jobs disappear and wages stagnate—the jobs that remain have, all too often, gotten worse. Constant surveillance is common; schedules are erratic; escalating performance quotas exact faster work. But these trends, often thought to be confined to front-line workers, have creeped up corporate hierarchies, affecting managers and executives. That’s prompted a new controversy: Are white-collar workers victims of exploitation, or merely whining?

A devastating report on the work culture at Amazon’s headquarters recently reignited the debate. The New York Times’s August exposé, based on dozens of interviews, portrayed a firm with all the regimentation and rigidity of military boot camp, minus the esprit de corps. Workers routinely cried at their desks. Rather than being comforted or accommodated, sick employees were dumped into Orwellianly named “Performance Improvement Plans” that simply hastened their eventual departures. Faced with a comprehensive employee-ranking system, cabals of managers agreed to praise one another while talking down the performance of others. Amazon’s “collaborative feedback tool” encouraged a Panopticon of vicious feedback—and similar software may be coming to many more firms.

The Times story spurred predictable, justified outrage. No company should be treating workers as disposable, to be trashed as soon as sickness or family obligations impede their ability to be on call 24/7. But a curious backlash to the backlash also developed. On Twitter, some tycoons took the Amazon news with a laid-back, “boys will be boys” complacency. Even journalists dismissed the complaints as white-collar whining. Ezra Klein, the editor in chief of Vox, urged readers to reserve their sympathy for blue-collar workers, such as the fulfillment-center employees baking in a Pennsylvania warehouse (until bad press shamed Amazon into buying air conditioners for the facility). White-collar workers can always leave, Klein assured us—the greener pastures of Google await.

It would be nice to believe America’s already attained the nirvana of white-collar labor-market flexibility that Klein assumes. But in truth, employers do a lot to limit workers’ options. As Orly Lobel, a professor of employment law at the University of San Diego, has shown, non-compete clauses may prevent a manager from joining a rival firm—or even any similar firms in the industry—for a period of months or years after they depart. Comprehensive non-disclosure agreements also diminish mobility: It may be hard to propose projects at a new employer knowing that they could trigger litigation alleging that they’re imitating past work.

The logic of the “save your tears for the blue-collar workers, who are really suffering” argument fails in other ways, too. Imagine the Times had published an expose of Amazon warehouse conditions instead. The merciless logic of relative victimization would downplay the suffering: “They have it lucky! Bangladeshi textile workers make dollars a day.” Comparisons like that may be a useful exercise for a philanthropy deciding whether to apportion a fixed set of dollars to abused managers and workers in more- and less-developed countries, but the court of public opinion shouldn’t be treated as if it operates on such zero-sum terms. If anything, sympathy for abused white-collar workers probably increases sensitivity to the plight of the precariat.

Moreover, when employees at the top are worked into the ground, cutthroat labor standards can trickle down. There is a direct connection between the way managers are treated, how they treat their direct reports, and how those reports treat other workers. Amazon is likely no exception. Jeff Bezos’s obsession with metrics—numerical targets to be maximized, whatever the costs—reflected his formative experiences at D.E. Shaw, a Wall Street finance firm. As Karen Ho observed in her penetrating study Liquidated, the volatile, abusive work environment of Wall Street bankers directly informs the way they look at the rest of the economy: If suddenly losing one’s job was a constant risk for them, as Ivy League graduates, how could a blue-collar worker ask for more? It’s a short-sighted and often cruel attitude, but it’s understandable: In a white-collar work environment where everyone is viciously competing to stay ahead, squeezing lower-level managers (and expecting them, in turn, to squeeze their subordinates) is to be expected.

Without some security and privacy for themselves, stressed out, fearful managers aren’t even going to consider the pleas or demands of other workers, such as a $15 an hour minimum wage, or less surveillance. Might Amazon lose its edge if it evolves toward the more humane workplace culture of, say, Microsoft or Costco? Maybe—or, perhaps, competitors may follow its lead. (The world may even be better off with a weakened, less powerful retailer at the top of the online food chain, but that is a separate matter.)

Of course, “Amabots”—a proud self-designation among employees who have become “at one with the system”—would beg to differ. One exhilarated employee described just how thrilling it was to coordinate on-demand deliveries in Brooklyn: “A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes.” To which I can only say: Let it go. Distributing a hypermarketed toy is not a higher calling. Running a company where the sick don’t live in fear of being fired actually is.