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.)