Amazon's depiction as 'a bruising workplace' stokes debates about IT culture

The bleak picture of Amazon's work environment detailed in a NYT article is leading to important discussions about the employer/employee relationship and work/life balance.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos
Image: CNET

The New York Times article Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace has ignited debate about workplace practices in the tech industry and the broader IT sector. The article paints a grim picture of rampant tyrannical, data-driven taskmasters managing a sea of "people [that would] practically combust," according to one former employee used as a source.

Even the company's innovations and successes come across as trivial, mockingly cited as getting a customer an Elsa doll (from the movie Frozen) in reportedly record time, or not spending time with one's family "for the cause of delivering swim goggles and Scotch tape."

While I've worked in some trying environments, compared to the NYT version of Amazon that's depicted as seemingly somewhere between the DMV and the Gulag, I was in the land of rainbows and unicorns.

What's the truth about Amazon?

I struggled with the credibility of the NYT account, as reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld highlighted normal corporate practices, including Non-Disclosure Agreements, electronic feedback tools, and Performance Improvement Plans, as being draconian measures that were seemingly unique to Amazon.

An informal survey of HR professionals and organizational consultants basically broke down along similar lines, with some, like Jason Averbook, CEO of TMBC, suggesting that, "These environments are absolutely not sustainable; they never have been and they never will be."

Others joined me in expressing some skepticism at the NYT reporting and interviews that relied primarily on former employees. Mark McMillion, of McMillion Leadership Associates, notes that, "There are likely three versions of the story: The NY Times', Amazon's, and the truth," and it does seem that dynamic is at play.

Passionate defenders of Amazon, ranging from CEO Jeff Bezos to line managers and employees, have weighed in, as well as former employees who confirm some of the more shocking aspects of the story -- the headline grabber being employees essentially being forced to quit after personal tragedies, from cancer to miscarriage, "distracted" them from their work.

Unfortunately, personal tragedies and less benign personal circumstances often result in either overt or unintentional consequences in highly competitive environments. This, coupled with an economic downturn or, in Amazon's case, lines of highly-qualified employees seeking scarce jobs, means you can essentially terminate anyone without fearing it will be difficult to find a replacement.

Anything, from having or adopting a child to suffering a major illness, may allow someone else who is not facing the same personal life changes or challenges to out-compete you in the workplace. Job candidates should do as much research on potential employers as possible to get a sense of how they might fit into the company's culture.

Interestingly, Lise Feng, a longtime commenter on technology brands, noted that, "The 'backlash' from this story didn't hurt Amazon's stock price." While organizational dynamics will always remain interesting for those in similar industries or roles, the market for Amazon's stock and the pipeline of top-tier talent remain unaffected.

What IT leaders can learn from the Amazon story

Leaders are always trying to learn from top-tier companies and superstar executives, and the legions of followers of Amazon are no exception. However, this story has caused some to question the esteem they've held for the company and Bezos.

Perhaps the most important takeaway is that a high-performance, customer-centric culture is not without significant risk. Like any good thing taken too far, excessive focus on data, Darwinist advancement proceedings, and a laser-like focus on hard work can result in atrocious behavior like "managing out" an employee who just suffered from a miscarriage. Amazon has responded publicly and forcibly to correct these incidents, and many contend that this behavior was in the past.

Amazon may get a "by" on its alleged draconian practices. Despite the NYT reporters' belittling of the company's accomplishments, Amazon is indisputably a fountain of innovation, and one of the top companies in the world for employees to work with the best minds and best technologies available. With a reputation as desirable place to work, employees who are mistreated may be regarded as replaceable rather than a sign of deep-rooted problems at the company.

Engendering competition and recognizing excellence are worthy goals, as long as you identify and redirect budding despots and tyrants rather than allow an organizational Lord of the Flies. Similarly, if you try to "play Bezos" without having a corresponding culture of innovation and opportunity or merit-based high compensation, your employees will oblige you by leaving, just like many of the NYT sources.

If nothing else, the NYT account of Amazon's work environment should rekindle debates about the employer/employee relationship, and how to demand the best from employees while also ensuring they treat each other respectfully and appropriately. Rather than following a fad or latching onto "the [insert company du jour] way," observe how your managers and leaders treat their peers and subordinates. You should also consider your actions, which speak far louder than even the finest code of conduct or values statement.

Tell us what you think

What's your take on the Amazon story? How would your employer fare if the Times wrote an article about its workplace culture? Do you agree with what Bezos wrote in his recent memo to employees: "... I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market."? What changes, if any, will you implement at your organization because of the Amazon story? Let us know.

Also see

By Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a leading global professional services firm, where he helps companies rapidly invent and launch new businesses. He is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companio...