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Podcast: When Your Boss Is Big Brother

“If we let the technologies dictate our values, we’ve got it deeply backward.” — Andrew McAfee


A recent article in The New York Times exposed a hard-charging workplace environment at Amazon. The Times piece — which Amazon says was not a fair representation — suggests that the company’s workers are closely monitored and tracked and that a brutal culture demands they be on-call at all hours. It raised provocative questions about the way the modern workplace — particularly white-collar work — is being transformed by data. Bosses have more and more information about their employees’ activities and performance and, with it, perhaps more control over the other parts of their lives.

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, a look at how companies can use data to become more profitable while also running the risk of making workers feel like efficiency comes before their humanity. Our guests:

Plus, this week’s Significant Digit: Several GOP candidates have pledged to visit all 99 of Iowa’s counties in advance of the Iowa caucuses. FiveThirtyEight’s politics editor Micah Cohen explains.

Stream or download the full episode above, and find a partial transcript below.

Data and the ruthless manager within

Andrew McAfee: There are two aspects to the [New York Times] Amazon story as I read it. One was about how data-driven they are as a culture. The other is about how hard-charging they are as a culture. And I thought the first of those was kind of interesting. Amazon has tried very hard to be a data-driven culture. The second one, my reaction was, “eh.” OK, they decided to have a hard-charging corporate culture. So what?

Jody Avirgan: But, of course, the catch is that the data enables that [culture] … and it allows managers to justify that behavior.

Zeynep Ton: They would do it with or without data. This is not a function of the data that they can collect. This is a function of what their mentality is and how they think about their employees. In that setting, it doesn’t seem like employees are that important — turnover is high. But they’ve designed a whole system around high turnover, and no one can say that this is not a successful organization.

Avirgan: But if inside every manager there’s a humane manager and a ruthless manager, the data was enabling that more ruthless side to come out. And if you think about this from a manager’s perspective, and they have the ability to monitor at all times … then even someone [who isn’t] a sociopath might take advantage of that, right? That’s the slippery slope of data that made a lot of people feel uneasy when they read that piece.

Ton: I agree. If used the wrong way, data can enable these ruthless practices. So we need to set some clear boundaries about how we use the data.

McAfee: Especially for our lower-level workers, who typically don’t have the power in bargaining relationships and therefore might get taken advantage of more.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.