‘Bruising workplace’ stirs up debate

Is Amazon taking the right approach with its tough culture?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/21/2015

It was a damning article. Outlining the “bruising workplace” of online retailer Amazon, an Aug. 17 story in the New York Times detailed the unrelenting pace, late hours and secrecy of a work environment that’s “more nimble and more productive but harsher and less forgiving.”

Workers are encouraged to tear apart each other’s ideas in meetings and held to “unreasonably high” standards. An internal phone directory tells colleagues how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses.

Annual “cullings” of staff see losers leaving or fired while some workers who suffered from health and personal crises said they were evaluated unfairly or edged out, rather than given time to recover, said the New York Times.

“(Amazon) is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable,” said the article. “The company, founded and still run by Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve Bezos’ ever-expanding ambitions.”

Reaction to the article was swift, with critics lamenting the demise of a kind and civil workplace, while proponents praised the no-nonsense, driven approach. 

Really, it’s about fitting the culture and structure with the right people, said Douglas Reid, associate professor of international business and strategy at the Queen’s School of Business at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“Could Amazon’s way work in Canada? Probably… but not for everyone, not everywhere, and not where the expectations of different treatment militate against something that goes quite against the grain. One of the impacts of their approach is likely burnout. But, at the same time, for people who like that pace, it could be wonderful.”

There are elements to Amazon’s approach that Howard Levitt, senior partner at Levitt & Grosman in Toronto, agreed with. 

“Obviously, the characterization of Amazon’s culture in the New York Times is egregious at the very minimum, so I don’t condone it, but there are aspects of it that not only are obviously making a difference in making it the number one market cap retail company in the world — from relative obscurity not that many years ago — but that (are) not dissimilar to a lot of law firms,” he said, citing as examples the long hours, variegated compensation models and focus on metrics.

“Do I attribute Amazon’s stunning success to its culture? To a large extent, yes,” he said.

Levitt also admired the focus on having the very best people.

“I don’t tolerate mediocrity,” he said. “If people aren’t good, you can’t afford to retain them, and that’s an Amazon approach too.”

“Amazon is anomalous. I find that a lot of employers, for relationship reasons, among others, and for morale reasons, will retain mediocrity and won’t fire people who are slightly below average.” 

Amazon is not necessarily unique in its workplace culture — law firms and consulting firms have similar practices, said Susan Power, owner and CEO of Higher Talent in St. John’s.

But it’s alarming employees are so expendable, she said.

“To me, if that’s true, that’s proof that there’s something dysfuctional there,” said Power. “Any really successful company has a strong workplace culture, and that’s not a bad thing, but where it becomes almost cult-like is what comes to mind... it can almost take on a life of its own and has got to be held in check.”

Brand recognition is a big part of it, said Merge Gupta-Sunderji, leadership and workplace communication expert in Calgary.

“If you’re a company that’s the size of Amazon and has the brand recognition of Amazon, it’s OK if hundreds of people fall and falter along the way — there’s bright-faced recruits just waiting to sign up,” she said.

Amazon appears comfortable with hiring really young people, said Gupta-Sunderji.

“My sense is they aren’t looking to build experience, they’re comfortable bringing in new, smart people, letting them do their stuff, burning them out, letting them go,” she said. “Amazon can ride that because their costs of recruiting are fairly low, people are lining up, but in any other organization, turnover comes at a price.”

There are Amazon workers who are biding their time until they have an opportunity to get out, she said, “and there are people there who thrive on it and love it and will probably stay there for a long time — they’re the ones who will climb the ranks.”

Blunt communication

The New York Times described a company where people are told to “rip into colleagues’ ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of painful” — and that has its merits, said Power, since open communications work well to get the highest quality work, product or service.

“They’re encouraging people to say what they really think and it becomes part of their culture where people aren’t afraid to speak up, even if it’s a higher-level manager that they disagree with.”

But, like anything, it can be taken to the extreme, said Gupta-Sunderji. 

“The philosophy of being able to give feedback, particularly when used in a positive way, is awesome, but when it’s used in a way to undermine people where they don’t even know what other people are saying about them, they don’t have an opportunity to respond, then it just… goes underground.”


Another integral component to Amazon is a focus on measurement. The company uses “a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more,” according to the New York Times. Employees are held accountable for an array of metrics, with “anxiety-provoking” check-in sessions that can include pop quizzes for employees.

There’s nothing wrong with meetings to share information, said Gupta-Sunderji.

“It’s another thing when there’s pressure attached to it, then it’s the same kind of thing as when we went to exams — ‘What if I don’t pass, what am I going to do?’ — it shouldn’t be like that.”

You’ve got to measure things to manage them properly, said Power. 

“Any corporation that I’ve worked at has been very metric-driven, whether it’s a call centre environment or you’re in performance metrics, but that’s a good thing, as long as there’s some give and take by the employer to accommodate your employees.”

But with technology and things being so metrics-driven, they can take on a life of their own, she said.

“People become dehumanized.”

Long hours are also expected of many employees, according to the New York Times. But a workaholic culture is a problem, said Power.

“You don’t own your employees,” she said. “Research shows that people who work all the time are actually less productive overall, have more sick days and a greater absenteeism rate overall.”

Role models

It’s critical for companies to keep trying to draw that line between work and life, said Gupta-Sunderji. And that starts with leaders, who are the role models.

“Your behaviour determines how they behave, so if they are seeing in their organization that all the senior managers all the way to the top have this expectation — they respond to email in the middle of the night and want an answer within 15 minutes — then you have no choice but to comply or get out.”

In response to the New York Times article, Bezos told employees “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either” and “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

But there is no way the founder is unaware of his company’s culture and the unhealthy, workaholic behaviours encouraged among staff, said Power.

“Jeff needs to take some ownership of the problem, and publicly own the fact their culture has gone into ‘overdrive’ and has some unhealthy norms that need to be changed. If the CEO won’t own the issue and continues to publicly state this is news to him... this shows a huge leadership deficit in the company, and there is little hope anything (will) change for the better.”

But CEOs are a bit insulated from what’s actually going on, said Gupta-Sunderji.

“You get buffered from the true message… that’s my message to CEOs: ‘You have to, you simply have to find a way to understand what’s happening at the front lines of your company because you will ... always get information that has been massaged.”

Bezos put all his energy into creating 14 leadership principles, which is brilliant, she said. But, over the years, he hasn’t communicated enough to say the principles are all equally important, said Gupta-Sunderji, citing as an example the one “Earn trust.”

“There is no freakin’ way on this planet that you could have an organization, the kind that’s been reported in the news, and have trust in your organization. So someone forgot about number 13, a whole lot of people — and a bunch of the other ones.”

Employees at Amazon spend their days breathing the principle “Deliver results,” she said.

“And that’s not a bad one — I wouldn’t want any CEO not to care about results — but the balance got lost somewhere in that equation.”

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