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Amazon’s company culture: innovative or punishing?

Kai Ryssdal Oct 19, 2015

Amazon’s company culture: innovative or punishing?

Kai Ryssdal Oct 19, 2015

Update: Amazon chief spokesman Jay Carney disputed the Times’ story in a post on Medium Monday, and New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet refuted the post point-by-point, also via Medium, a few hours later. Since then Carney has posted a second time, restating a few points. With these media and tech giants having it out in public, we’re resurfacing our conversation with Times reporter Jodi Kantor. This interview originally aired on August 17, 2015.

In her piece in the New York Times, Jodi Kantor (with help from David Streitfeld) looked at the innovative and harsh working conditions that employees face at Amazon.

“So many of us know Amazon as consumers but not that many of us knew about the fascinating workplace that Jeff Bezos has created inside the corporate Seattle offices,” she says.

Amazon has a reputation for having hard-working employees.

“They do pride themselves on being a tough culture,” she explains. “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.” 

The hope for Bezos is that these high expectations yield success for the company. Kantor says that in some ways it’s working.

“By many measures, it is very successful. Amazon just became the country’s largest retailer…[Bezos] is now the fifth-richest man in the world. And what people say is that part of Amazon’s success can be attributed to the fact that he’s basically invented a way of getting the most out of every employee.”

Kantor says employees value a lot of aspects about Amazon, for instance, “it’s a culture of innovation, there isn’t a lot of red tape, relatively junior people can have a lot of responsibility.” But that doesn’t mean that employees aren’t 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 with the company, but they were struggling with this kind of punishing culture,” she explains.

Kantor says some of the practices that employees found upsetting were how team members had to compete with each other.

“Team members are ranked against each other,” she says. “It’s a very competitive atmosphere,” and this can create an uncomfortable working environment because “at Amazon, it’s particularly direct. Because, for example, you can send secret negative feedback about your peers to your peers’ bosses. The bosses see who it’s from but other workers don’t necessarily see it.”

One of Kantor’s more surprising findings was about Amazon’s evaluation system. “The evaluations system is fairly relentless … we found a real pattern of people who had life crises when they were at Amazon; they had cancer, their parents died, they had really bad pregnancy loss. And that they said is that the company did not give them time to recover, and they felt the company was so relentless that they couldn’t pause and get back on their feet,” she explains.

It comes down to finding a balance between pushing employees while making sure not to hit their breaking point. She says that companies that have this kind of culture have to ask themselves, “Is there any place you finally draw a line and say ‘An employee cannot work this hard,’ or ‘When x and y happens to an employee, they simply need to take time off.’”

Kantor explains that, “for so many of the people we talked to in the article, they themselves were debating the ’Amazon way’ … only within the context of their own lives: ‘Is this right for me?’ ‘Do I really want to work this way?’”

The article has helped bring that debate into the open.

“So it’s not only an Amazon worker sitting with her husband talking about those issues, but it’s now more of a public conversation,” Kantor notes.

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