Amazon’s Destructive Culture Exposed – or Not?

by Colin Shaw on September 1, 2015

Amazon is in some hot water right now. The New York Times article appearing last Saturday has many people wondering if Amazon is the company they thought it was.

The article in the NY Times tells a story of an employee culture where workers are never off the clock. (Oh dear! Welcome to corporate America, I say!) People are apparently expected to work all the time. (Well, if you don’t like it the answer is simple: Find another job.) It also describes managers penalizing people for having family or medical emergencies, and encourage each and every employee to tattletale on their co-workers. One employee interviewed said that it was routine to see people crying at their desk. (In my view the answer is that he or she is in the wrong job). Maybe Amazon should take the Zappo’s example of paying people to leave the company after six weeks of training to ensure they get the right people.

A rebuttal posted by an “Amazonian” denies the validity of the claims published in the Times. However, I believe there is plenty of truth to go around for both sides, and the proof will be in the Amazon pudding as it were.

What do I mean by that? Simply put: if Amazon’s workplace culture is despotic as the NY Times article said it is, then their product and the resulting Customer Experience would be, too. For my part, I don’t believe it’s as bad as all that.

I have to admit, I raised an eyebrow during this litany of allegations. It sounded like Amazon was a house of horrors for those that called themselves “Amazonians.” I wondered how anyone would ever work at a terrible place like that.

But then I remembered Steve Jobs. I remembered the ad that they run:

“Heres to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward.

And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Amazon is trying to break the mold. I applaud them as it is how change happens. Are there a few people that are poor managers in Amazon? When you have 180,000 employees that is a statistical certainty.

So could it possibly be that the culture at Amazon was so egregiously unhealthy as described? The truth is that it’s possible, but highly improbable.

Nick Ciubotariu, the Head of Infrastructure Development for Amazon.com’s Search Experience, said the article was complete rubbish. These examples of what employees experienced at Amazon were not the norm, but the side effects of the unfortunate history of what Amazon was guilty of in the past. He quotes a high-level executive in his article that admits they used to “burn a lot of people into the ground” but they had changed.

Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO of Amazon also denies the work culture depicted in the article. In his letter to employees this past Sunday, he said:

“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 couldn’t agree more.

While it says the right things about what Bezos hopes is the case, the question in many people’s minds might also be, “Is Bezos easy to work for?” I don’t know personally, but I have read he is not. Great entrepreneurs are all demanding, as it were. These big names (Bezos, Elon Musk, the late Steve Jobs) share traits that make them tough to work for or with. Did those characteristics trickle down to other managers and translate into some of the stories shared in the NY Times article? Possibly.

I admire Amazon and what they are doing with their Customer Experience. They continue to strive for excellence in the experience they deliver their Customers. They are always looking for a way to both surprise and delight them; two emotions that are know to drive value for any business. But “Amazon” isn’t a thing doing this; it’s a brand name. It’s the name of the company, which employs a group of people that make these things happen on behalf of the Customer.

The reason I ultimately doubt the validity of widespread employee exploitation and abuse at Amazon is because the employee experience and Customer Experience are linked. I always say, “Happy employees make happy Customers.” I say this because it’s true. When you provide a work environment that fulfills employees and empowers them to do their work, they get excited and inspired to do great things. They become engaged with the company mission and brand promise. And they deliver on it.

I have also seen what happens when management doesn’t have a great workplace. When the culture is dire, the Customer Experience is, too. Don’t believe me; just ask anyone who works at Ryanair where employees are abused in social media by the CEO.  Or maybe one of the employees at Wal-Mart.

The reality is that none of us outside the organization know for certain what is happening inside Amazon. What I do know is their Customer Experience is good. I doubt a culture built on the regular abuse of employees will yield their top performance in Customer Experience. And who can deny that Amazon delivers top performance in Customer Experience?

What do you think? Is Amazon a cruel environment designed to suck the life out of employees for the betterment of Customer Experience or did they suffer some bad publicity for sins of the past?

I would love to talk about this LIVE with you on Periscope. I will broadcast tomorrow at 12PM EST, @ColinShaw_CX, and am happy to answer any questions you may have about this and any other topic. Download the app for free, here: http://periscope.tv

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Colin Shaw is the founder and CEO of Beyond Philosophy, one of the world’s first organizations devoted to customer experience. Colin is an international author of five bestselling books and an engaging keynote speaker.

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Colin ShawAmazon’s Destructive Culture Exposed – or Not?