Day One Fund… Day Two Bummed... Bezos sets a chilling example for the future of work

October 13, 2019 | Ollie O’DonoghuePhil Fersht

In 2018 Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos (and his now former wife MacKenzie) announced they would commit $2billion to fund existing nonprofits that help homeless families and to create a network of preschools in low-income communities. They called their project the "Bezos Day One Fund”.  Barely one year later, the same man slashes basic healthcare insurance to 1900 of his lowest income part-time workers

Today’s emerging young workforce cares deeply about the values of their business leaders – and those who pay lip service to their staff will be those who fail to create long term loyalty, passion and productivity from them.  Let’s discuss how the successful companies’ of the future are going to be those where leaders follow through with their promises, and staff are motivated to take responsibility because they have trust in the leadership to deliver on the mission.

Leaders can’t keep getting away with rhetoric and fail to follow through with their promises

The challenge with most equations and narratives predicting what the future of work looks like is that they are built primarily from two assumptions:

  • The labour pool will acquiesce and comply with whatever the future demands and
  • Corporations and their leaders will show unprecedented philanthropy.

History tells us neither will hold true.

And we don’t need to look too far back – literally a couple of days – to see the failings of this equation laid bare before us. First off, a few weeks ago, a group of business heavies and CEOs from the G2000 got together and declared an end to shareholder supremacy. Throwing Milton Friedman’s leafy tomes into the furnace, perhaps replacing them with the more ethically focused Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth (a fantastic read).

Freeing themselves from the tawdry world of stockholder returns, these captains of industry could now work to please all stakeholders – from employees to environmentalists. All good so far. But fast forward a few days, and it’s clear to see that once the marketeers and journalists have worn themselves out, nothing has changed.

When even Amazon shows its callous side, what hope is there?

One of the flagship signatories of the declaration, Jeff Bezos –  the world’s wealthiest person with a sprawling business empire – decided it was presumably in the benefit of all stakeholders, not just shareholders ravenous for profits, that 1900 part-time staff from recently acquired Wholefoods should be stripped of basic healthcare. Who needs healthcare after all, in a world populated by benevolent CEOs?  Do Wholefoods customers really care if the person bagging up their $15 slabs of cheese have access to the same healthcare they do?  Probably most won’t, but many Amazon employees who care about the welfare of their less privileged colleagues, are surely shocked by this recent act of corporate greed and insensitivity. And what’s preventing Amazon from putting many it’s 600,000-plus employees across its warehouses, logistics, call centers and admin centers on flexi-time to slash more health benefits and wage commitments? Starting with its poorest supermarket workers is surely only the start...

While we should laud the intent of the declaration of our business overlords, to us, it just seems to prove how out of touch or just plain hypocritical many are. The last year has seen unprecedented political upheaval across the globe, in many instances on the precipice of war. We’re facing unprecedented global and corporate inequality and increasing unrest from workers, tired of bearing the brunt of corporate excess since the 2008 financial crisis and their bailouts, at the expense of the taxpayer. We’re not fortune-tellers, but we suspect signing a bit of paper just isn’t going to cut it.

In corporate leadership we trust: the belief we can rely on humanist and philanthropic business leaders is - and will remain - false.

We can kick around Bezos’ appalling placement of profit above all, despite his appetite to jump quickly on the pledge for broader stakeholder value all day long. But the critical part of this story tells us exactly where the hearts and minds of business leaders are today,  and have been to a greater extent in the past. Pledges and declarations of employee rights follow us through the history books, and we’re usually just a few short pages away from the same statements being declared null and void by those who drafted them. So what’s to say the future will be any different?

And after all, that’s what we’re relying on here – you can shout Luddite for as long as you like, but in many cases, we’re a few licenses away from having droves of employees pushed into corporate servitude by bots. And those are the ones that aren’t shoved straight onto the scrap heap. ‘Jeff wouldn’t do that to us, we’re too valuable, he promised he’d look after us’ they’ll cry as they’re ushered out of their offices. But he would. And he has. And he’s not the only one prepared to do it.

Keeping a business running and profitable, of course, is technically healthy for employees – in almost all cases, difficult decisions will need to be made as we plug in more digital technologies. If we don’t move forward, businesses may go bust, and then everyone’s out of the job. And to an extent, disequilibrium in the global economy is incentivizing this mindset – in a mostly negative-interest economy; investors are piling in on equities in the hope of returns. C-Level executives have never needed to focus on shareholder value more, as activists look for any sign of weakness to force a change of leadership. The cynical amongst you may draw the inference that the reason so many senior leaders signed the declaration pushing back against shareholder primacy are doing so only as a defense mechanism against an increasingly punishing investor environment.

In any case, pragmatic business management isn’t what needs to come under the microscope – it’s the number of times optimistic future of work pundits place corporate philanthropy at the center of their vision. History tells us it doesn’t exist at scale, so why do we continue to be slaves to the human condition of unshakeable faith in something we have no evidence for?

Bottom Line: The Future of Work isn’t going to be a Utopian paradise if we sit by the sidelines hoping good ol’ CEO Jeff will take pity on us

The reality of the future of work is it’s going to be a painful process for many. Not because people despise change, but because the change will happen too fast, and at such a scale that many will slip up. Like a horde of inebriated youths trying to run up the wrong side of an escalator, people will fall over, get hurt and get left behind – while a few of the quickest and, most importantly, first to start running, make it to the top. If you’re a business leader with an anti-Bezos approach – and you genuinely want to help your teams prepare and succeed, the time to start is now.

The future of work is as much about employees arming themselves with the skills and technologies, they need to become successful – not out of ambition but the unfortunate realization that in many of the big firms that dominate city skylines don’t care about your development or career. You are valuable to them right up until you’re not anymore.

We cannot keep relying on the fallacy that someone higher up the chain as a clear and picturesque vision that we can all be a part of. We need to drive change together or risk falling behind and never being able to catch back up. Like those who missed out on highly lucrative jobs in the bay area and have been squeezed out never to return to the multi-million-dollar studio apartments. Or the bankers who… well, actually bankers always tend to be fine. Maybe we should all just become bankers.

Posted in: HR StrategyGlobal Workforce and TalentPolicy and Regulations

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1 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Nigel Barron
    Posted Oct 14, 2019 06:10 AM | Permalink Reply

    'The future of work is as much about employees arming themselves with the skills and technologies, they need to become successful – not out of ambition but the unfortunate realization that in many of the big firms that dominate city skylines don’t care about your development or career. You are valuable to them right up until you’re not anymore.’

    Also, don’t get old or sick.

    There was a great article in The Atlantic about Jeff Bezos that you might find interesting.

    Jeff Bezos’s Master Plan What the Amazon founder and CEO wants for his empire and himself, and what that means for the rest of us.

    "Bezos’s ventures are by now so large & varied that it is difficult to comprehend the nature of his empire, much less the end point of his ambition. What exactly does Jeff Bezos want? Or, to put it slightly differently, what does he believe?” @FranklinFoer https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/11/what-jeff-bezos-wants/598363/

  2. John
    Posted Oct 14, 2019 07:20 PM | Permalink Reply

    Brave and to the point! Kudos Ollie and Phil for sharing these candid views of the future

    John

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