Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Is Amazon's company culture innovative or punishing?

Amazon / More than just a dot.com that sells books and music.

The play story on the cover of Sunday's print edition of The New York Times, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace" by Jodi Kantor with help from David Streitfeld, has grabbed the nation's attention and lit up social media, but not necessarily for all the right reasons. According to Kantor, Amazon is conducting an experiment in how far it can push its force of white-collar workers in order to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.

Amazon is the U.S.'s biggest retailer with a market capitalization of $250 billion -- bigger than Wal-Mart and Target -- and most of us know this dot-com powerhouse from being consumers. Indeed, they've come a long way since being just an online retailer for books and music. Now, it's possible to buy over 20 million items -- from Amazon's Kindle to digital cameras to even toilet paper -- and if you're willing to pay the price for Amazon Prime, you can have it delivered the next day.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos
Part of the success that Seattle-based Amazon has enjoyed starts with its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the fifth-richest man in the world -- yes, the world. According to Kantor, part of Bezos's success can be attributed to his inventing a way to get the most out of every employee. Yet, while some may look at his management style as draconian, others consider some of the data-driven tactics and practices coupled with the passive-aggressive work environment he's promoted at Amazon as innovative and fascinating.

One thing's for sure, Amazon has a reputation for having hard-working employees. "They do pride themselves on being a tough culture," said Kantor on Monday in an interview with American Public Media's "Marketplace" program, which aired nationwide via NPR. "You know Bezos tells people 'This is a culture of working incredibly hard.' They use the phrase 'unreasonably high' to describe their standards and expectations."

According to Kantor, who interviewed current and former employees over the past six months which included several executives, employees value a lot of aspects about Amazon, including the fact that "it's a culture of innovation, there isn't a lot of red tape, relatively junior people can have a lot of responsibility." However, in reading her damning Sunday story in The New York Times about Amazon's company culture, it came across to me -- and I'm sure was noticeable to everyone -- that Amazon's employees are being hurt by the harsh company culture. "I found that in most of our interviews, we were talking to people who really loved aspects of working for the company, but they were struggling with this kind of punishing culture," she said during her "Marketplace" interview.

Among the practices which Kantor cited that upset Amazon employees included how team members had to compete with one another. "Team members are ranked against each other," said Kantor. "It's a very competitive atmosphere." Yet, because of this, it has morphed into an uncomfortable working environment. Imagine, because of this particular directness, it's possible to send secret negative feedback about your peers to your peers' bosses. While the bosses see who it's from, other workers are not privy to this information.

On Monday, Mr. Bezos responded to The New York Times article about Amazon's uncompromising attitude and hard-hitting management style, saying "I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market."

In a letter to Amazon's 180,000 employees, Mr. Bezos added: "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."

It became very apparent from reading Kantor's article that work-life balance -- the "Amazon way" that promotes climbing the wall after you've hit the wall -- skews towards employees who rank their work life more important than their personal life. Amazon, by all accounts, has perfected a balance between pushing its employees to the brink -- driven to tears amid a climate of fear -- while making sure they haven't hit their breaking point.

I can imagine Amazon employees asking themselves the following questions: "Is this right for me? Do I really want to work this way?"

Where do you draw the line?

If anything, after reading The New York Times article, I hope it brings the debate about workplace culture into the open and starts a public discussion about Amazon.

Listen to Jodi Kantor's "Marketplace" interview:

Read the New York Times article:

Photos and images: Courtesy of Google Images.

No comments:

Post a Comment