Business, Culture and Bad Apples: An Open Letter to Jeff Bezos

Dear Jeff:

Like so many others, I read the recent NYT article about Amazon with a mix of disbelief and despair. On one hand, I deeply admire Amazon for your many successes. As an Amazon customer I am grateful for the convenience you have brought to my life. Yet on the other hand, I believe strongly in the critical role of healthy workplaces in nourishing the human soul and, thereby, contributing to healthy families and societies.

It’s easy to read this article as a hatchet job. It’s also easy to read it as an exposé. I suppose it’s always easy to find whatever meaning we like in a piece of writing.

But I don’t think either of these narratives are particularly interesting or productive. The lesson here likely lies somewhere in the murky middle.

I assume that some of the anecdotes shared in the article are true. Perhaps they all are. Even so, I do not believe that Amazon is a Dickensian nightmare. I believe it is possible for a company to produce some horrible behavior and also not be defined by it.

What’s interesting to me in all of this is not what these anecdotes tell us about Amazon today, but what they indicate Amazon could become in the future.

That is why I think you ought to pay attention. Less because of the short-term impact to reputation. Scandals of every sort blow over and people move on. It’s the long-term implications of this to your business that should be of concern.

If a business has one brand, division or region that is underperforming, other brands, divisions or regions can make up the difference and the business is just fine. Not so with culture. Poison anywhere in a culture eventually becomes poison everywhere in the culture. If even one of the stories reported by the Times is true, then there is a dynamic at play in Amazon’s culture that must be studied, understood and then dealt with.

This dynamic is not important because it gives the media and others fodder to criticize Amazon. You will always have critics. It’s important because this sort of cultural toxin will corrode your engine of revenue and profit.

If Amazon employees are feeling fulfilled, not just as employees but in their lives in general, their sense of joy will be infectious. Customers will feel it. And it will make us want to do business with you more. The converse is also true. If employees feel disrespected, demeaned, exhausted, customers will feel it. It will degrade our experience of Amazon and make us much more susceptible to the allure of alternatives.

Perhaps no one has understood this better than your very own Tony Hsieh. “At Zappos, our belief is that if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff — like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers — will happen naturally on its own.”

Jeff, perhaps you’ll allow me to share a little advice: Embrace this moment as a gift. As painful as it must be to read such a negative representation of the company you founded and hold so dear, the Times has done you an immeasurable favor by shining a light on some forces at play in your culture that, if left unchecked, will cause you much more pain than a newspaper article ever could.

Now is the moment to take a hard look at Amazon’s culture, to re-dedicate yourself to the principles you hold dear and to galvanize your entire workforce to embrace their fullest potential — as individuals, parents, sons, daughters, friends, members of communities, as Amazon employees and also as a collective force for social good.

We are all wishing you well.

Adam