Will Amazon Ban “Ethics”?

A new report from The Intercept suggests that a new in-house messaging app for Amazon employees could ban a long string of words, including “ethics.” Most of the words on the list are ones that a disgruntled employee would use — terms like “union” and “compensation” and “pay raise.” According to a leaked document reviewed by The Intercept, one feature of the messaging app (still in development) would be “An automatic word monitor would also block a variety of terms that could represent potential critiques of Amazon’s working conditions.” Amazon, of course, is not exactly a fan of unions, and has spent (again, per the Intercept) a lot of money on “anti-union consultants.”

So, what to say about this naughty list?

On one hand, it’s easy to see why a company would want not to provide employees with a tool that would help them do something not in the company’s interest. I mean, if you want to organize — or even simply complain — using your Gmail account or Signal or Telegram, that’s one thing. But if you want to achieve that goal by using an app that the company provides for internal business purposes, the company maybe has a teensy bit of a legitimate complaint.

On the other hand, this is clearly a bad look for Amazon — it is unseemly, if not unethical, to be literally banning employees from using words that (maybe?) indicate they’re doing something the company doesn’t like, or that maybe just indicate that the company’s employment standards aren’t up to snuff.

But really, what strikes me most about this plan is how ham-fisted it is. I mean, keywords? Seriously? Don’t we already know — and if we all know, then certainly Amazon knows — that social media platforms make possible much, much more sophisticated ways of influencing people’s behaviour? We’ve already seen the use of Facebook to manipulate elections, and even our emotions. Compared to that, this supposed list of naughty words seems like Dr Evil trying to outfit sharks with laser-beams. What unions should really be worried about is employer-provided platforms that don’t explicitly ban words, but that subtly shape user experience based on their use of those words. If Cambridge Analytica could plausibly attempt to influence a national election that way, couldn’t an employer pretty believably aim at shaping a unionization vote in similar fasion?

As for banning the word “ethics,” I can only shake my head. The ability to talk openly about ethics — about values, about principles, about what your company stands for, is regarded by most scholars and consultants in the realm of business ethics as pretty fundamental. If you can’t talk about it, how likely are you to be to be able to do it?

(Thanks to MB for pointing me to this story.)

4 comments so far

  1. […] “Will Amazon Ban Ethics?” […]

  2. Jae Webb on

    Thanks, Chris. I appreciate your take on this and find it quite salient. If ever their was a situation of the tail wagging the dog, blocking key words on a company app is it. Not only would it be feckless, it would most likely be counterproductive to the company’s pursuits – almost gamifying communication, e.g. replace “union” with “onion” and “pay raise” with “lettuce up” or some ilk just to make getting around it fun. It’s a band-aid on a bullet wound.

    Howard Schultz return to Starbucks represents a different tactic/strategy for a company to take in the face of employee calls for unionization, a situation I believes warrants close attention. Can a servant leadership approach, (listening, empathy, and awareness) be sufficient to address the underlying issues causing such a call for unionization to emerge.

  3. Michael Kates on

    Interesting post! I also think it’s important to emphasize that this is yet another example of how undemocratic the workplace is, and how the freedoms we cherish and take for granted are blocked on the factory floor.

  4. Cody McGaha on

    Thanks Chris, I enjoyed your perspective on the matter at hand and being clear about how you stand helped me gain perspective as well. I personally understand the undermining tactics from the corporate levels to create an environment where the lower level employees cannot form union, which Amazon stands against. On another hand the employees word choice and monitorization of messages through the app in development would inhibit an environment for the employees that is not comfortable for communication which is very important for personal well-being on all levels of the corporate structure. Ethically the employees have a reason to have push-back against the the communication forum Amazon wants to adopt.

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