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Is Amazon alone?

Mark Garrison Aug 17, 2015
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Amazon is on the defensive after a story in the New York Times questioned its workplace culture and described appalling stories of employees being treated harshly while recovering from health and family issues. CEO Jeff Bezos says there will be zero tolerance for actions like those described in the story, which include a woman who had miscarried twins being sent on a business trip the day after surgery and a cancer patient given a poor performance evaluation after returning from treatment.

But other parts of the story, about the long hours and constant pressure on employees to perform, ring true not just at Amazon, but at other tech companies.

“They put people in jobs that deplete them incredibly,” explains Bob Sutton, a Stanford University management professor. “That’s just how it is across the industry.”

And as many who toil in law, medicine, management consulting or investment banking are quick to point out, punishing hours are not something technology companies invented. But hearing of long hours at a tech company cuts against the image these firms have carefully crafted as progressive temples of innovation that shower their workers with free food and swanky gyms. But even those perks reinforce long hours.

“The perks vary from company to company, but where they exist are generally designed to, you know, keep you from leaving so that you work harder,” says David Auerbach, a veteran of Google and Microsoft.

A caffeine-fueled all-nighter culture that propels a young tech company may not serve a giant public firm. As tech companies grow from startups to sprawling public companies with global offices and numerous departments, they realize they can’t run giant businesses with just young, single techies.

“Many of these companies find it more difficult when people start to get older and have families and children,” says Katherine Phillips, senior vice dean of Columbia Business School. “The culture might not exactly fit.”