Culture At Amazon: Losing The Trees For The Forest

On August 15th, the New York Times published an article entitled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideasin a Bruising Workplace. This controversial article is nothing short of a scathing exposé on what is described as a brutal work environment. While I am impressed with Amazon’s accomplishments I definitely have to question their methods:

1) What creates more innovation and success — overwork and brutal competition, or just the right amount of stress in a supportive, collaborative environment?

2) What is more important, profit or quality of life? Is it possible to have both?

Inhumane Working Conditions

I once worked for a restaurant in Miami that would shut off the air-conditioning when the last customer walked out the door. This was an attempt to save money which I might have understood, if they hadn’t just purchased a $40,000 lamp. We humble employees had at least an hour or two of side-work to complete in our long sleeve polyester shirts. The temperature quickly became unbearable, so in protest I would work with my shirt off.

This article describes an even more disturbing situation that took place in an Amazon warehouse in 2011. Employees in Pennsylvania toiled in more than 100-degree heat with no air-conditioning, while ambulances waited outside to transport the fallen to the hospital.

Even in Amazon’s offices where conditions are physically humane, treatment can be inhuman. The Times points to various instances where workers took time-off due to cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises and were told that their personal issues were interfering with company goals. An Amazon spokesman said such responses to these crises weren’t policy or practice, but they don’t seem out of sync with the rest of their culture.

The Bright Side?

According to The Times there is a long list of factors that make working at Amazon difficult:

- 80+ hour workweeks

- An expectation to always be on (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered)

- Workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings

- Hostile language in meetings based on #13 of Amazon’s 14 principles — disagree and commit

- Warehouse employees are electronically monitored to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour

Why would anyone endure this type of treatment? One reason might be that the e-commerce giant often rewards their top-performers with stock. For a growing company valued at $250Billion, this can sometimes amount to a small fortune.

Difficult places to work have an upside. Amazon is certainly profitable and employee innovations impact the lives of millions of customers. All employees are pushed to perform better than they have in the past, and many rate their colleagues among the sharpest and most committed people they have ever met.

Measuring-up

Amazon constantly measures individual performance, ensuring high productivity but also creating a harsh work environment. This is what that looks like for an employee:

- Purposeful Darwinism — moving many employees through a stressful workplace to find the A-players. The chaff leave or are fired, while the wheat are offered incredible opportunities and compensation.

- Weekly or monthly business reviews where employees are expected to be aware of thousands of metrics.

- In yearly Organization Level Reviews, managers rank subordinates and often get rid of valuable talent just to meet quotas. This process is adversarial, with managers defending some employees while incriminating people from other teams or their own low-performers.

- An Anytime Feedback Tool allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management.

One might think that a large company has to operate in this way. Systematic performance reviews, treating people like cogs, and getting rid of the “dead-weight” is a necessary evil. But GE, Accenture, and Adobe have all abandoned stack rankings and performance reviews in-lieu of regular employee feedback software. As former Amazonian, Liz Pearce explains, “Amazon is driven by data. It will only change if the data says it must — when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense.”

Clearly Amazon is the type of company that is driven by economics to innovate quickly at great cost to the lives of at least some of its employees. Feedback and reviews should be used to inform, support, and guide, not to create unhealthy competition.

Employees Are People

The energy from extreme stress, criticism and negative self-perception has to go somewhere. According to Bob Chapman, founder of Truly Human Leadership, collateral damage is caused by workplaces that don’t care for their employees — contributing to broken marriages, broken families and broken lives.

But according to The Times, Amazon’s leadership thinks that harmony is often overvalued in the workplace — that it can “stifle honest critique and encourage polite praise for flawed ideas”. This philosophy leads to a common saying, Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.

There has to be a middle ground. Managers should support employees to become their best selves. Sometimes that involves stress for the employee, because without challenge there is no growth. But working constantly and always under pressure is the other extreme. People need down-time and time to spend with the other people in their lives. We all need to be treated with dignity and respect, not be made to cry because we couldn’t reach some ridiculously high expectation.

There are those who benefit from some challenge, but push them too far and their creativity completely shuts down. Some people thrive in extreme environments and so actively choose them. But who wants to look back on life and say, I am in the hospital dying of some stress-related condition but at least I created a service that delivered stuff to people in under an hour? (As one Amazonian put it, “enduring the hardships for the cause of delivering swim goggles and rolls of Scotch tape to customers just a little quicker”.)

Response From On-High

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos responded to the article with a letter to employees that was subsequently published in The Times. Here is an excerpt:

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.

Well Jeff maybe you are aware of the comings and goings of all 180,000 Amazon employees. I am sure that some probably do laugh and create strong work relationships (they’ll have to since their schedules offer little time to socialize outside of work). But based on a turnover rate that is among the briefest in the Fortune 500, there are clearly some issues here.

People continue to endure abuse for various reasons. For example Stockholm Syndrome, is a psychological condition in which hostages have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with them. Or in the case of Dina Vaccari, “For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.”

There is something to be said for pushing past what we thought were our limits, that is often how greatness is accessed. But there is a limit to pushing limits. If people need to put in long days or weeks here and there to launch a project, that’s fine. Any employee should have the self-generated determination to do what it takes.

I personally work with more dedication and purpose than I ever have before in my life. Ironically I also have more autonomy and less direct supervision than ever before. I work in a collaborative and supportive environment where leaders want me to live a great life, not just do great work.

A harsh work environment may be alright for some in the professional sense, perhaps it does push people to greatness. That lifestyle also takes its toll on our physical, emotional, and mental health, and has deleterious effects on our personal lives. This is especially true when people are not supported during times of personal crisis or endure unsafe working conditions.

Given the number of companies that grow and innovate via supportive leadership and collaborative teams, I can’t see how Amazon’s system is sustainable. Profits and success are important, but in the end isn’t there more to life and business than that?

Image Credit: Donkey Hotey


Originally published at www.15five.com on August 18, 2015.

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