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Amazon Responds To Scathing New York Times Report

By Scott Costa, Publisher, tED magazine

I didn’t need any coffee last Sunday morning to have my eyes opened pretty wide.  The New York Times did the trick without the need for any caffeine.

In its article on the culture for Amazon employees at the Seattle headquarters, the New York Times reports a wide variety of strategies that pits employees against each other.  The story says Amazon workers “are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings.”  Also, the New York Times story says there is an “internal phone directory (that) instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses.  Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”  The directory supposedly helps the employees with their feedback of other employees by supplying sample texts to send the message that another employee is not working up to expectations.

New employees say the first Amazon trainer they met as they began their careers had one important statement for them.  “Conflict brings about innovation.”

If that was all that was alleged about the culture at Amazon, it can be argued that a few disgruntled employees decided to seek out the attention of the media to air their disagreement with the management practices.  But it’s not.

Employees are also expected to work long hours and late into the night.  In fact, if an email comes after midnight, the employee is expected to answer it right away.  Many complained that they received text messages early the following morning demanding to know why the employee had not yet responded to the e-mail.

There are other stories of Amazon employees who suffered personal tragedies like the death of a family member, a cancer diagnosis or a miscarriage.  The employees claim Amazon expected them to either return to work immediately or risk losing the opportunity for advancement.

As one employee told the New York Times, “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face.  Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Dirk Beveridge is the founder of UnLeashWD and the author of the book “Innovate”.  He devotes an entire section of the book to the value of a culture and how it translates into success.  Beveridge tells the story of Blinds.com founder Jay Steinfeld, who took a tiny window covering business where he sold his products out of the trunk of his car and turned it into an Internet giant that now has an exclusive agreement with Home Depot.  Steinfeld gives his employees five vows that they need to follow, especially the last, which is “We will always support one another.”

Amazon did offer a few responses to the New York Times article, including this quote from Susan Harker, Amazon’s top recruiter. “When you are shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging,” Harker told the newspaper.  “For some people, it doesn’t work.”

On Monday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent a memo to his staff in response to the Amazon article.  While he offers support for all of his employees, he also reminds them in his last sentence that working at Amazon is not for everybody.  Bezos’ memo says, “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.”

Amazon is successful in the minds of its customers, who are buying more and more of their every-day items online.  It is reaching into wholesale supply through Amazon Business, offering millions of products that are in direct competition with electrical distribution.  But can it recruit, mentor and retain the next generation of our workforce if the stories the current Amazon employees are telling are true?  This could be an opportunity for many of you to show what a difficult work environment looks like while promoting yourself to your next potential employee.

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