Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (February 1998)
FUN co-editor Richa interviewed former Amway employee Amy Schatner. Amy’s sibling, Sharon Schatner, who was there listening to Amy’s complaints during Amy’s years at Amway, also contributed. The interview was reviewed by Amy and edited. The book reference is to Stephen Butterfield’s 1985 book, “Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.”
Amy: My aunt worked there and told me about a job opening. I went in and interviewed for this job — I was right out of college — they told me they had something more in line with my career. I got all excited. It turned out to be something where the distributors call in to get their items replaced when they’re defective.
So, I got in that way. I stayed there for six months, moved to another department for six months, then another department for about five years, then another. I was there a total of about seven and a half years.
Richa: Did you know anything about Amway when you went to apply there?
Amy: I knew it was a big company out there in the country where my aunt worked, and my brother. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about “corporate America,” I just wanted to get a job.
For the most part I pretty much did the same kind of work. I worked directly with the distributors on the phone. I moved up and I moved on. Each promotion gave me more responsibility and was more challenging.
I’ll tell about the good things first. They gave me opportunities to learn computer skills that I didn’t have before… [long pause] I can’t think of anything else!
Sharon: Well, the thing about Amway is, you get in there, they pay so well, they give good benefits, you have such security. I worked there for just a short time, but what I’m saying, once you’re in there, it’s kind of like a little trap.
Amy: The golden handcuffs. That’s a good point, because that is part of why I stayed there. The important thing to note is that I realized, probably in year two, that I wasn’t happy, this wasn’t where I wanted to be, I didn’t see it as my career, I didn’t identify myself with my work, and I always knew… I’m out of here any minute now, just any minute now. I never bought into it like all the other people I worked with, I never had the loyalty, the enthusiasm for the company. But, yet, I stayed there seven and a half years.
There were a lot of personal things that kept me there. Fear of failure, fear of success, not really knowing what I wanted to do. I decided at one point I wanted to go to graduate school and get a degree in psychology. So I went through that process, tried hard, and thought I had a strong application. I did not get in. A that point I was miserable enough, backed in a corner enough, so that I was just going to do whatever I had to do to get out of there.
That’s how I finally was able to get out of there, and became more blessed than I ever deserved, because I got a job that I love with all my heart. I mean, it’s very emotionally taxing and a very hard job, but I love this job.
But anyway, at Amway, there are things that would happen that I would talk about with my coworkers, and they would say, “Just don’t think about it.” For some people it is the only opportunity they have. People that live way out, they haven’t had educational opportunities…
Richa: Did Amway do things to cultivate or reinforce that attitude, that things should just be accepted without question?
Amy: Yes. Amway does an excellent job of building company loyalty. This is going to sound cynical, but I honestly believe it is not because they really, truly want their people to be happy, but because they know the value the monetary value of having a workforce that loves the company they work for.
I always felt like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. That’s kind of how I felt; that that wasn’t “the way to be” so blindly loyal and blindly accepting of everything.
Just to give you kind of a funny story, they have these monthly employee meetings where virtually every employee of the entire corporation is invited…
Sharon: It’s mandatory.
Amy: No, it’s not.
Sharon: Oh? I was never told I had an option.
Amy: Anyway, the president of the company, or the vice-president, addresses everyone on how business is, and people can ask questions. Most often I’d go to these meetings most people in my division did — because it was an opportunity to get away from the drone of work. It was near the holidays, and I came in and all the chairs had this blue sheet. It was a poem about Amway: “I go in every day, this is the way I like to earn my pay…” You know, just the hokiest, “Rich and Jay, hooray! Hooray!” I mean, just like that. I wish I could remember the lyrics. I thought, “What is this?”
Well, it was a song. And they got a piano out, and everybody was asked to sing this song. And I’ll be damned if everybody didn’t sing this song. I mean, everybody sang it! And they were happy to sing it, and they enjoyed singing it, and I just wanted to disappear! It was just the most bizarre thing. I felt like it was the Third Reich.
Sharon: The crowd behavior thing.
Amy: Yeah. It just didn’t seem like there was one person that thought, “This is weird,” or even, “This is silly,” or something.
Richa: I would think it would have been hard to tell.
Amy: Yeah. But I’m too rebellious, or maybe I’m stupid, but I didn’t sing it, and I looked around and it was like, these people are like sheep.
But I worked with some wonderful people, and some friends that I will always have. I just feel at the time they were all mindless, even though I know that’s not the case.
I could ramble on for hours, but the bottom line for me, my leaving Amway, feeling it was not a place where I belong, was greed. I worked on the phones with Amway distributors every day, all day. That was the bulk of my work for many years. Near the end of my tenure there, maybe the last two or three years — every once in a while we’d get to travel on these weekend “expos” where distributors would get together and rent this hall and they’d have speakers and they’d have expos of products. Quite a lot of contact with distributors. Greed, and all the ugliness that greed brings. That’s what I saw a lot of. That’s really what kicked my butt out the door.
Richa: Can you describe specific ways that the greed came through?
Amy: Boy, every subtle and not-so-subtle way. Distributors on the phone would be willing to be just a little dishonest, or just cheat a little bit in order to get more money. Lie to you to try to get from you, as if you had the secret of how to get more money. The distributor functions were… a lot of gold and diamonds. I mean, huge diamonds. In the Amway hierarchy they reach different levels of achievement, and they’re all represented by different gems. The highest one is diamond. “Go diamond!” is the battle call. “Go diamond!” everywhere you hear. And diamonds is one of the things people spend their money on.
There’s a monthly magazine they have called “The Amagram,” and they would always feature a “star” couple. They would be depicted in rolling his with their mansions. The pervading message was “You gotta have more! You gotta have more!”
I’ve go to say, the two founding fathers, Rich and Jay, I truly believe that they were, and they are, good men with the best of intentions and the highest integrity. The second generation, the very kids, I don’t feel that way about. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s just so big now that they can’t keep their hands on everything…
Another story: Remember, during the elections, when Amway purchased TV time for the Republican convention for the sole purpose of being able to air the convention? You know, they’re a privately held company; they can do that. That’s the way our system works in this country; they have that power. But what bothered me was I went to one of those employee meetings, and Dick DeVos stood up there and said they did that — a private donation that they never planned on being publicized — for the sole purpose of wanting to expose more Americans to the democratic process. And I though, “Why can’t you just say you’re Republicans and you want Republicans to win?” That just really bothered me. And I thought, this guy, he spins things so much as he goes along, that I don’t know if he really believes that, or if you spin things for so long you lose any objective perspective.
Sharon: Remember you told me about the meeting where they talked about something with capitalism, where they were trying to win everybody over to their way of thinking?
Amy: Rich wrote this book called “Compassionate Capitalism,” which had these different points, and they would do this thing during those meetings where they would show Rich talking about each point, a different one each time. He would talk about what each meant.
Richa: Did people pretty much buy that?
Amy: Oh, yeah, because there’s a certain ring of truth in that. I mean, there has to be, otherwise nobody would buy it at all. There’s nothing wrong with personal responsibility; it depends on the spin you put on it.
Sharon: It sucks people in with beliefs they’ve been taught all their lives, and it makes it seem like you’re just confirming what everyone knows.
Richa: I remember some of that from the book. It came very much out of a Cold War type of thinking from the 1950s, even though the Soviet Union no longer existed by the time it was published. But did those talks focus more on the personal?
Amy: No, it’s definitely economic theory, financial theory.
They are into making money, and they make no bones about that.
This is something that started happening just before I left. You’d hear a lot about “corporate culture”; how very important that was, the corporate culture you were working with, and how we should all “be on the same page.”
They have this little thing called “Culture Seminar” where you spend half a day eating doughnuts and drinking coffee and watching videos and doing exercises, about trying to identify with an Amway distributor and who would like to be an Amway distributor. Part of that is watching the video that shows a typical distributor: They’re trying to work a full-time job, and take care of kids, and build their business in their spare time. So all their evenings and all their weekends are spent at Amway functions. That’s no kidding: I mean all of them. And their kids — I couldn’t believe this: The video would show, “Mom, dad, come and toss the ball with me.” And mom and dad would sit down and explain that they’re building their future, blah, blah, and the son was just kind of, “Whatever.” And the weekend comes and they drag him out of town again for this distributor function yet again, and there’s the whole problem of the babysitter. The kids are tired, the parents are tired, the babysitter goes home. The kid never did get to toss that ball, but “you’ve reached a different level, and I understand how great that is, and I’m so proud of you” and we’re all just a great big happy family. Then they turn the video off, and I’m thinking to myself, did anybody see how sick and wrong this is? That these kids have no parents? Then I though, okay, maybe I’m the only one that sees it that way; maybe I’m nuts. But somebody did say something; somebody did say, “Boy, I don’t know about those kids?”
Richa: I should think it would be hard in that corporate culture to say anything at all critical or questioning.
Amy: Right. It is.
One more story. My department purchased a type of technology that cost almost a million dollars. I don’t want to say just what it is or what department because there are still people there that I really care about, and I don’t want to see them be hurt. Real expensive technology; state of the art. We were the only ones in the company to have this technology at the time. Well, they wanted to be sure the employees were really going to use it and buy into it. It was a way to help them do their jobs more efficiently and easier. You know, people who have been doing the same job for a few years it’s hard for them to change the way they do things, so it was rather hard to get people to use it.
So they had a meeting to explain this new technology. And during this meeting my boss said, “You have to use this system [X] times a day.” Somebody raised their hand and said, “I don’t need it. I know this stuff.” And she said, “I don’t care, do it anyway. Just use it.” And I said “Why?” (You learn not to ask “why?” because you get slapped in the face; nevertheless I asked, “why?”) And she said, “We have to show that we’re using the system. We have to show the person — you’d know who it was if I said it — we have to prove to them that this is a good investment. We have to show a return on the investment, and we have to do it fast.” And I said, “You want me to lie about how often I use this, and how often I need this?” And the answer was “Yes.” And by that time I had been pushing it, so the answer was, “YES, and PLEASE shut up!”
I’m sure that happens everywhere across America; it’s not unique to Amway.
Richa: That’s the only time such a thing happened?
Amy: That was the only time I was blatantly asked to lie, other than my old supervisor saying, “Tell em I’m not here” kind of thing. And this is from a woman who I respect. She’s a neat lady. I mean, I like her. And I think that it was just another case of, she didn’t just sit down and say, “You know, I’m asking people to lie for me.” She was so intimidated by her manager, and so afraid, that she just did what she though she had to do. And she probably wouldn’t even remember it.
That incident, more than anything else…that was near the end…I though, I can’t do it, I just can’t play the game any more. And there was no way that I could play the game, and sort of melt into the background. They would see it, because the numbers would show that I was not using the system.
Richa: Getting back to the distributors, Butterfield wrote that only 1-2% of distributors ever make, or ever can make, the way Amway’s system is set up, enough money to comfortably support a family. In talking with distributors every day, did they ever indicate that they had an idea of the odds against them? Did they have a sense of the frustration in trying to do that, or the structure that makes it so hard to do that?
Amy: Absolutely. I remember probably four years ago hearing that the average direct distributor earned $30,000 a year. You have to have reached a certain level, and you have to have so many people under you who have reached a certain level, to become a direct distributor. The vast majority of the people I talked to were not direct distributors; were nowhere near being direct distributors. I mean the vast majority.
Every so often you talk to a high roller, but that was unusual.
I always attributed that to the nature of my job. People who need my help may be somebody who is not as experienced.
But I think there are a lot of people out there who get into the business because they think that they’re going to get rich, and they’re going to have a nice annual income with moderate effort. And that’s just not the case. That’s not going to happen. You won’t make real money unless you are like, one of those people who are in the video, who puts that much into it.
The whole nature of that, the whole lifestyle, you have to buy into. They want to make their employees more and more thinking like the way their distributors think. You have to think Amway, and breathe Amway, have Am-friends, and Am-products. It scares me! That kind of lack of creativity. It just makes me very uncomfortable. It brings out the worst in people, and that’s where you see the greed.
Richa: Did you see that being true for the employees as well; the people you worked with?
Amy: No. The people I worked with were pretty much normal people.
I love the paycheck, but you have to sell your soul for that time and a half because you’re smiling and you’re acting like, “This new product is just the living end!”
There’s always this mystery to me about why people are so willing to throw out their feelings about things and just buy into this. It’s not people who just don’t have any other opportunities, or people who aren’t terribly bright.
Sometimes, they’d send us to meetings, and you’d get to fly, and stay in nice hotels. You’d be there with all distributors representing the corporation, and you’d smile and wave, and they would all want to know about what it’s like to work for Amway. On one hand, they think it’s so great, but on the other hand, they just can’t believe, “Boy, I can’t believe, why aren’t you an Amway distributor? We know what this business can do!” These are doctors, a construction worker, an accountant, or something like that… It kind of reminds me of the games with fraternities or sororities, “I’ve got to belong” or something; be part of the group.
Richa: What about these meetings for distributors you mentioned. What would they be telling people?
Amy: People who work at the corporation in a certain department that distributors work with a lot would come on stage, and the distributors would get very excited about these corporate people. If you were a family member — anybody named DeVos or VanAndel — tears would come to their eyes. They were very moved even to be in the same room. They could say or do anything, and [the distributors] were just very thrilled.
I just want to say that all these great and noble reasons for me not working there are not it. I mean, that’s not completely why I am not there. I have to say that the very personal nature of my work was very difficult for me. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like it when people aren’t fair, and aren’t nice and kind. People aren’t going to be fair, whether it had anything to do with me or not. And just by the nature of my work I had to deal with that and I just didn’t like it. I used to be good at it, but I just didn’t like it.
So maybe, if I had a job that was creative, where nobody asked me to lie, where I did work that I could say I was proud of, and that kind of enriched me, after all I just said, I might still be there.
I took a pay cut to leave that job, and I would take a pay cut to do anything that was better than that; better for me, for my soul.
Richa: When you first applied, did you have any knowledge at all of the fraud, forged documents, dummy corporations in Hawaii to cheat on taxes, that sort of thing that had gone on and gotten a lot of publicity in the corporate media? Or did you learn about some of those things while you worked at Amway?
Amy: That all happened before I came there. When I first came there I wasn’t paying attention to that kind of thing. It just kind of had to slap me in the fact before I woke up. I would hear references to it and people would make jokes about it, but I never really got into that whole story.
There was a sense of people around me that we should be grateful to have a job. We should be grateful we were given the opportunity to work.
Sharon: And to have such a good job, because the company is so good to you. And they do things that make you feel you are very lucky to have a job because you’re sitting at a phone or whatever, you’re making nine or ten dollars an hour..
Amy: When I left I was making $15 an hour. Now that’s a lot of money.
Sharon: And all the benefits and bonuses.
Amy: And some people made more money than that, who didn’t have a degree. For them, darn right, they were very grateful.
For me, little things too. Like, I am a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat or fish or poultry. To people I worked with, that was a freaky thing! I mean totally freaky, crazy. They’d tease me constantly. Not in a mean way. Just, they’d never let go of the fact that they really felt that was bizarre.
Richa: Did it seem to you, as Butterfield wrote, that Amway had characteristics of a cult?
Amy: You know, a lot of people refer to Amway as a cult. I don’t think they are a cult in the sense that most cults are, but the distributors (“distributor organization”) use a lot of tactics that are very similar to cults. It is very much a pure world and if you diverge… Anybody who isn’t “with” that is either a “negative person,” or at their most generous, somebody who “just isn’t quite ready yet.