It’s a Jungle out There: What’s Been Lost in the Debate about Amazon

Share:

On August 15, 2015, the New York Times published an extensive article on the work environment at Amazon. The article, based on numerous interviews with a number of named sources, both current and former employees, described Amazon as a ‘bruising’ workplace characterized by excessive work hours, unreasonable demands, toxic intra-team competition and a generalized lack of compassion towards staff experiencing personal hardships and setbacks.

The piece has received significant media attention and feedback – some positive, some negative. A current employee, Nick Ciubotariu wrote an extensive rebuttal (on his LinkedIn account) to the assertions made in the Times’ article and wholly rejected its content and conclusions. He contrasted the article with detailed descriptions of the positive and empowering environment in which he works.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, responded to the article and response by issuing the following letter to his staff:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff

[Emphasis added]

I have no concerns with the debate that unfolded regarding the atmosphere at Amazon. However, I have significant concerns with Bezos’ response.

First, it is apparent (from the two different perspectives referenced in his letter) that there is significant dispute and debate surrounding the nature and extent of “issues” with the environment at Amazon.

These concerns need to be properly and objectively reviewed by experts in workplace leadership and conflict management, not by employees, leaders or journalists (none of whom are trained in conducting reviews of this nature and most of whom have a vested interest in a particular outcome).

While the Times’ article is not “evidence” that a problem exists, it certainly “triggers” the need for a full, comprehensive and transparent review of the current workplace.

Amazon should have followed the lead of the CBC in this regard. When the media reported allegations concerning Jian Ghomeshi’s conduct in the workplace, CBC hired a trained, independent investigator to conduct a thorough review in order to determine whether or not there was merit to the concerns being raised in the media. By doing so, CBC took this out of the realm of “journalistic debate” and “employee conjecture” and instead, initiated a process of “evidence based decision making”, beginning with an independent review and ending with a plan to address “concerns” based on the results of the review.

Regrettably, Bezos did not do so. Instead, he denied the claims in the Times’ article based on his own opinion and perceptions of the workplace. It is impossible to be “objective” (or be seen to be objective) about a matter in which one is personally invested and involved.

Second, he encouraged individual employees to approach HR (or him directly) if they had an issue. When there are serious, prolonged or systemic issues in the workplace, individual employees are reluctant to approach HR or senior leadership for fear of retaliation. In my work, this fear of reprisal, real or perceived, has caused many employees to remain in very destructive environments instead of coming forward to report their concerns.

Which brings me to Bezos’ related comment: “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.” Bezos is fortunate to have the ‘choice’ to leave. The fact that employees “stay” in destructive workplaces does not mean they are ‘crazy’ – it means that they often do not have – or see themselves as having – any other option. This perceived vulnerability needs to be better understood, appreciated and acknowledged by senior leaders such as Bezos.

Bezos ends the letter by saying “But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”

Bezos is responsible for doing far more than “hope” that the Times’ article isn’t true and that his employees are, in fact, feeling safe and respected in the workplace. The article has triggered the need for him to “act”. Bezos should step up and demonstrate true values of leadership, including courage and transparency, by initiating a fulsome, objective, third party review of the workplace dynamics at Amazon and take action (as necessary) on the basis of its findings.

Workplace issues can be highlighted by the media – but they need to be resolved in the workplace through a fair and objective process.

– Marli Rusen

Subscribe to our newsletter today to receive helpful tips, resources and, of course, our latest blog posts.