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Is Amazon a ‘Soulless, Dystopian Workplace’?

This weekend, The New York Times published an exposé of working conditions at Amazon corporate. Amazonians, the article claims, are required to work long hours, in a data-driven environment that means constant performance evaluations; are expected to answer emails after midnight, sometimes at the prompting of follow-up texts; and are encouraged to inform on one another to management. Workers who don't come up to snuff allegedly are culled in layoffs that a former employee describes as "purposeful Darwinism" – some former employees claimed to have been pushed out after miscarriages or cancer. In an internal memo shortly after publication, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos responded, saying that the company described doesn't match his view of the organization and urging workers to come forward if they disagree.

This weekend, The New York Times published an exposé of working conditions at Amazon corporate. Amazonians, the article claims, are required to work long hours, in a data-driven environment that means constant performance evaluations; are expected to answer emails after midnight, sometimes at the prompting of follow-up texts; and are encouraged to inform on one another to management. Workers who don’t come up to snuff allegedly are culled in layoffs that a former employee describes as “purposeful Darwinism” – some former employees claimed to have been pushed out after miscarriages or cancer. In an internal memo shortly after publication, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos responded, saying that the company described doesn’t match his view of the organization and urging workers to come forward if they disagree.

 amazon offices

(Photo Credit: Robert Scoble/Flickr)

From the memo (full text available at GeekWire):

Do You Know What You're Worth?

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.

From the Mouths of Amazon Employees

The memo also referenced a LinkedIn rebuttal from Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu, who is Head of Infrastructure Development an Amazon.com Search Experience. Ciubotariu claimed that the Times article included multiple inaccuracies, “some clearly deliberate,” including the claim that workers are expected to answer emails at night, that employees often cry at their desks, and that most people pay for their own business travel. His TL;DR version:

Step 1: Have bias
Step 2: Find ex-employees with anecdotal stories that fit in with your bias
Step 3: Gather old stories and criticism while glossing over changes made to improve on that, and completely ignore that it’s still significantly better than industry practice
Step 4: Take half-truths and spin spin spin!!
Step 5: Publish article

Other employees disagree. Quora has several threads on working at Amazon, all of which contain at least a few workers who echo the sentiments of the disgruntled former employees interviewed by the Times:

Work-life balance – I don’t think such a thing exists here.”

“I am a current employee at Amazon. I joined Amazon post MBA in their Retail Leadership Development Program in Seattle. Almost everyone I work with at Amazon is stressed and generally unhappy. Apart from the sheer amount of work, what really gets to people is that there is no appreciation or positive reinforcement. And this culture flows top down from Bezos.”

“Get ready to work for 60-64 hours a week, and every one would say ‘It’s normal.’ This could go even go up to 70-80 hours during Q4. …You can be paged on a weekend when OnCall and you have to update every thirty minutes on the issue. At times there can be several (I have heard up to 5) such issues at the same time. …Even if you think you are working very well, finally you will be stacked with other team mates and only the highest rated will get a good increment. 70% get into the average rating.”

Is There a “Type” of Worker Who’s Happy at Amazon?

The Times article closes with a quote from a recruiting video. A young, female Amazonian says: “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.”

Judging from the feedback of current and former employees on Quora, LinkedIn, and in the NYT, workers who love it probably have a thick skin and thrive on working long hours with smart, equally driven people. They are also often willing to sacrifice some work-life balance in order to have Amazon on their resume when they inevitably (and perhaps pretty quickly) go on to other things. In 2013, according to a PayScale survey quoted by the Times, the median tenure for an Amazon employee was one year.

But as the tech industry gets more competitive for talent, the question arises: can Amazon offer those opportunities alongside a culture that in-demand tech workers find desirable?

“Amazon is driven by data,” former Amazonian Liz Pearce tells The New York Times. “It will only change if the data says it must — when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”

Tell Us What You Think

Have you ever worked at a “top employer” – and if so, how did the experience measure up? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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brian nelson

I hope not, God I hope not because I spend an enormous amount at Amazon

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