Silicon Valley is known for being brutal, with talent coming in and out daily, but a New York Times article during the weekend on the company culture at technology giant Amazon sparked a new wave of debate.
And on Monday, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos addressed the article’s criticisms in a memo sent to Amazon staffers.
David Streitfeld and Jodi Kantor of The New York Times, who co-wrote the original article, followed up their article with Bezos’ remarks:
For 20 years, Amazon has reveled in its toughness. “Work hard” are the first two words of a company motto. An oft-repeated line from Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive, calls the company culture “friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense.”
That uncompromising attitude played a large role in building a retail powerhouse with a market capitalization of $250 billion. But now Amazon is taking issue with a depiction that its culture is all-toughness-all-the-time for many of its workers, and says it wants to tamp down on excesses that have left many bruised employees in its wake.
Mr. Bezos, responding to an article that was published by The New York Times over the weekend about Amazon’s hard-hitting management style, deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”
The article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” told of workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises who said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover in a company that could not slow down.
In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.
Brian Fitzgerald of The Wall Street Journal summed up Bezos’ memo to employees with this summary:
With tech giants thriving and startups flush with cash, competition for tech talent is fierce. Which is why Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos says it’s illogical to think he designed the company to grind white-collar employees into dust. Mr. Bezos issued a company-wide memo in response to a cutting New York Times article over the weekend.
The Times account was filled with jarring accounts of a hypercompetitive atmosphere where health emergencies are depicted as inconvenient and employees can use an internal tool to conspire against each other and dish to the bosses. It’s a litany of hard-to-read tales from the upper ranks at a company that already has suffered a hit to its reputation over stories about its treatment of warehouse workers.
In the memo, Mr. Bezos says the company portrayed in the article doesn’t resemble one he knows, let alone one he would ever work for. It paints a “dystopian” picture, Mr. Bezos writes, and it is illogical: “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”
Financial Times writer Hannah Kuchler explained how this is not the first time Amazon has received strong opposition to its treatment of employees:
Amazon has previously been criticised for how it treats warehouse staff, whose movements are carefully tracked by computers and who are often on temporary contracts with few benefits. It has also been embroiled in conflicts with book publishers and small businesses over its power in the marketplace.
But the New York Times story focused on white-collar employees and managers responsible for developing the business. It described how these staff were also affected by Amazon’s obsession with data and said it had a commitment to fire the lowest performers in each team every year.
Michael Fertik, chief executive of Reputation.com and author of The Reputation Economy, praised Mr Bezos’s memo for being fast and openly directing employees to read the story. “It is good that it is out in the open — it is on the internet after all,” he said.
Amazon has faced such scrutiny because it challenges values cherished by the “thinking and writing classes”, Mr Fertik said, giving the examples of the company being criticised for “killing off bookstores”.
He also said it was wrong to compare Amazon, with its huge workforce of “pick and pack” warehouse staff, to companies such as Facebook, which are mainly staffed by professionals and have much chunkier margins to spend on benefits such as free food.
CNN Money’s David Goldman wrote about other Amazon employee reactions, citing employee review site GlassDoor statistics:
Though Bezos was the most prominent Amazon employee to respond to the New York Times story, Nick Ciubotariu, head of infrastructure development for Amazon’s search product, received the most attention. His LinkedIn post went viral Saturday.
Ciubotariu said that as a “proud Amazonian,” he felt “compelled to respond,” due to what he called “so many deliberate inaccuracies” by the New York Times.
“If Amazon was the type of place described in this article, I would publicly denounce Amazon, and leave,” he said.
Ciubotariu strongly knocked back many of the New York Times’ accusations, including the culture of “diplomatically throwing people out of the bus” and the use of the term “Amabot” to describe employees. He said Amazon is always hiring outside talent in an effort to come up with better ways of doing things.
Yet the New York Times’ story did capture a general sentiment expressed by Amazon employees in one at least one online employee survey.
On job rating website GlassDoor, 82% of employees have a favorable opinion of Bezos, but only 62% would recommend that a friend work at Amazon.
By comparison, 82% of Apple employees would recommend the company to a friend, and 95% approve of Tim Cook. At Google, 92% would recommend the company to a friend and 96% like parent company Alphabet CEO Larry Page. And across Lake Washington from Amazon, 81% of Microsoft employees would want a friend to work there, while 88% approve of CEO Satya Nadella.