What should we think about Amazon?


If you’ve read the news over the past few days you probably heard about the latest NY Times story on Amazon’s working conditions and company culture. Since then, there has been a ton of discussion, rebuttals, rebuttals to rebuttals, and general commentary around the issue. Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos chimed in on the issue, and encouraged his employees to read the article for themselves. While I haven’t worked at Amazon or covered it’s history closely there are plenty of others who have. It’s worth reading about their perspectives so please check out a few of their links, such as the ones here, here, and here.

After reading the entire article I can’t say I was surprised to see what i saw. Amazon has had a history with challenging working conditions in its operations centers and factories so to hear about something similar in Corporate Headquarters does not come as a surprise. Furthermore, there are over 5000 comments on Amazon’s Glassdoor page, many of which echo similar sentiments that are in the article. Call me a cynic, but the lack of compassion, empathy or just plain humanity that some of the former employees shared didn’t come as a surprise. But on the flipside, it also wasn’t surprising to hear that despite the environment there were people who had positive experiences working there, or that it changed their careers for the better, or that there are people who are clammoring to work there.

Most people would agree that Amazon has revolutionized the retail experience and truly done something incredible. Doing that takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and unfortunately, it generally means there will be casualities along the way. In my mind, the ends don’t always justify the means on an individual basis, but rather, they explain, but not excuse why certain people encounter challenges when working for a company that is truly trying to do something transformational.

Startups are hard, and Amazon is often referred to as the world’s biggest startup. In order to make things happen at the pace and speed that Amazon wants it means delivering about and beyond your job description under tight deadlines and under high amounts of stress. Trying to do something transformational like what Amazon is doing does not always jive with work-life balance or “managable work-load.” This environment can be difficult for anyone and for some it brings out the best and others not so much, which in many ways explains how employees who work in the same company with the same company culture can have such varied experiences. One of my tendencies is to always assume positive intent – in that the people who shared their experiences working at Amazon (positive and negative) were telling the truth and that I should give them the benefit of the doubt. So if both sides of the story are telling the truth, what do we stand on the issue with Amazon’s company culture?

First and foremost, the examples of a lack of empathy and compassion are incredibly distributing. The hope is that these stories are the exception and not the actual norm, and just as Jeff Bezos said in his letter, if they are in fact true, why would anyone want to work for a company that perpetuated that?

Secondly, choosing a job or career isn’t always about what you get to do, but rather, about what you have to give up.  Figuring out how to ship an Elsa doll within 23 minutes of the order creation and getting all of the people, process and technology to do that in 11 months doesn’t exactly jive with 9-5, work-life balance and stress free work life. But, is it worth giving up 40 hour work weeks if you get an opportunity to deliver happiness to hundreds of thousands of kids? Possibly. Amazon is not for everyone. Heck, even for the people its for, it may not be for them forever. Hiring managers and employees need to be clear on expectations so that people can make the decisions that are best for themselves and their families. For some, it might mean taking a hard pass, whereas others might welcome the opportunity, even if it means making sacrifices.

Third, in the digital age, employees can be your best ambassadors, or your worst ones. They can beat their chest and extol your praises or trash your company and whatever it stands for – just look at what happened in response to the NY Times Article from the thousands of commenters and writers who spoke for or against Amazon. Empowering your employees can enable you to empower your company brand. This doesn’t necessarily entail free food, perks, or massages, but rather, giving people the sense that they belong to something bigger than themselves and that their work matters. It can be as simple as saying thank you after finishing a hard project, or just simply treating your fellow colleagues with respect and dignity regardless of whether or not you agree with them or how stressful things are at the moment.

In an organization of 18,000, there surely will be good managers and bad managers. People who ignore politics and people who further them. Kind and compassionate people and people who do not posesss those traits. Much of the experience these Amazonians had depended on their group and team were on. It’s apparent that some had it better than others. If there are in fact bad managers, their needs to be processes and triggers in place to spot these, provide opportunities for correction, and eventually removal if there is no remediation. Nobody is perfect, even managers are still learning, so it’s important to not have too short of a leash. But considering how much of a data-driven organization Amazon is you’d think they would apply that to collecting and analyzing data on managers who continuously have attrition, teams that have very high hours worked rates, and so forth.

As a half-glass full kind of guy, I think this article is positive in that it hopefully will spur a much needed discussion about company and workplace culture. Questions like “What our good company values?” and “How can we chase excellence while maintaining morale” are important questions all companies should be asking themselves. Building a company and scaling it to serve billions of people is tough stuff. It’s not for the faint of heart and its going to take effort, sacrifice and will from thousands of people. If Jeff Bezos truly cares about his company and his people (I think he does) I think he’ll try to make changes that ultimately are for the better. For the rest of us, it gives all of us an opportunity to reconcile what we do everyday with what we have to give up in order to do what we do every day. Amazon, and all of us, we’ll be better for all of this.