When “Purposeful Darwinism” Goes Too Far in the Workplace

Will Recent New York Times Article Prompt a Class-Action Lawsuit Against Amazon?

A powerful piece in a recent issue of The New York Times included much anecdotal evidence about employees  of Amazon, the appropriately named multi-billion dollar corporation, being mistreated and losing their jobs for illegitimate reasons. While it is not against the law for a company and its bosses to be tough and demanding, and is even believed by some to necessary to financial success, some of the accusations against Amazon may point toward unacceptable employment behavior.

The Organization Level Review, a system developed by Amazon to have managers rank subordinates, appears to have some vulnerability in terms of inequitable treatment. Such ranking may be applied unequally to employees with health issues or those who are caregivers (most frequently, women), giving the independent and able-bodied a significant competitive edge. Referred to as “purposeful Darwinism” by a former Amazon director of human relations, this rating system may result in unfair treatment in the workplace or even in unfair dismissal.

An attorney familiar with this argument related the case of a woman with a child who, after serving as an Army captain in Iraq, arranged to have an early work schedule (7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) at Amazon to accommodate her childcare responsibilities. Colleagues, unaware of her deliberately altered work schedule, perceived her as slacking off and gave negative feedback to their mutual manager. Because Amazon’s policy is to dismiss employees ranked at the bottom of its presumed productivity scale, this woman, and others like her, may have been at the receiving end of some type of discrimination.

Furthermore, it has been pointed out that working shorter hours does not necessarily result in lower production. As a matter of fact, sometimes the reverse is true. Dedicated employees who work during a more condensed period may become extremely well-focused and more efficient than coworkers who spend longer hours on the job.

One area that needs to be investigated in terms of Amazon employment practices is whether a disproportionate number of women are forced to leave the company as a result of ranking reviews. It may still be an uphill climb for workers to prove “commonality” in such practices, however, since a similar class-action suit against Wal-Mart was dismissed by the Supreme Court in 2011 because it could not be proven that centralized company policy was responsible for discriminatory decisions made at a great many separate stores by a great many individual managers.

Although some employment inequities, particularly as class-action suits, are difficult to prove, it is possible that Amazon may face an increasing number of individual lawsuits in the near future now that this issue has been brought to light. The New York Times article quoted an employment attorney as pointing out that more highly paid employees are more likely to be able to engage private attorneys to fight for them and the individual stakes will be much higher.

If you are faced with unequal treatment in the workplace or have any questions or concerns relative to employment law, framed either from the perspective of the employer or the employee, please contact our skilled attorneys at Thomas M. Lancia, PLLC. Proudly serving clients in the New York City metropolitan area with efficient, personal  service, we can be reached at 212.964.3157.