New York Times describes Amazon as a “Bruising Workplace”; Bezos responds

New York Times describes Amazon as a “Bruising Workplace”; Bezos responds

A couple of my readers called my attention to this

New York Times article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld

I had seen that it existed but it’s quite lengthy, and it took me until today to read it all.

In the meantime, I had even seen it referenced in the “news crawl” on a 24 hour news channel.

The article is entitled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”.

Amazon has faced accusations of being an unsafe workplace (in particular, heat issues in warehouses), but this doesn’t claim that Amazon is doing anything illegal (at least not directly: they reference the heat issue, but didn’t investigate it).

It does claim that the company is…unempathetic. It says, essentially, that coworkers can criticize their teammates…without being identified to the accused.

It describes what could be interpreted as a harmfully competitive environment.

Jeff Bezos has responded, as referenced in this

CNN Money article by David Goldman

and other places, including this

GeekWire article by John Cook

which reproduces Bezos’ memo.

Having read both, I have a few takeaways:

  • Based on the articles, Amazon isn’t doing things that are illegal
  • It’s hard to work at Amazon…definitely challenging
  • It’s possible that some managers at Amazon have treated some  employees without compassion
  • If that is the case, it troubles me that Jeff Bezos says that isn’t the Amazon that Bezos know. If it as indicated (the NYT claims to have spoken with 100 employees and ex-employees), it would trouble me that Bezos woudn’t  know
  • Some of the good things which have come out of Amazon have happened because of their unconventional policies
  • Update: looking at more responses, I also want to say that part of the reaction to this might be people assuming that what is reported is specific to Amazon, when it might be much wider spread. It may be seen as unique to Amazon, when it could actually be a broad indictment of not uncommon corporate behavior. That’s not to say that Amazon doesn’t do some things differently…it does. However, it may be that it just does some things more effectively than some others. Many companies would like to cull their lowest performers every year…Amazon might just be better at it
  • Update: the biggest concern for many people here will be the stories of unempathetic treatment…that after someone has had a family tragedy, they are punished for lowered performance during that period. I can tell you that that is not the case where I work: I’ve coworkers out for long periods due to personal challenges, and be supported and welcomed back by management. Again, though, it’s not illegal (and it may not be  unusual) to judge someone’s performance regardless of extenuating circumstances, as long as the law if followed in terms of family leave and such. In my opinion, not illegal…but not necessarily wise, either

I’ve been a successful manager, and I would not lead my team using the techniques alleged. It was always a big thing to me (and still is) that the team works together.

I don’t like competition within the team…I think it is counter productive.

Let me give you an example.

I was managing trainers, who are naturally inclined to want to help other people (it’s what we do for a living).

We had evaluations from students.

When I became manager, there had been a bonus for the person with the highest evaluation average.

That seemed like a bad thing to me.

To have the highest average doesn’t mean that you have to improve what you are doing. If you could make everyone else do worse, that would be enough.

Again, trainers wouldn’t do that consciously: but would they work after hours to help someone else improve their scores? It would be hard to justify taking the time away from their families, if it could also cost those families money.

I proposed a change, which was accepted…and seemed to really help.

We changed it to say that if the team reached an overall average goal, we randomly selected someone who had made a minimum score to receive the bonus.

You couldn’t get the bonus twice, until everybody on the team had won it once.

In other words, you needed to  make sure everybody on the team did well to have a chance at a bonus. If they did, you would eventually get a bonus…even if your score wasn’t the highest that week.

Every Microsoft certified training center in the USA (might have been North America) had to use the same evaluation system with Microsoft…I think it was thousands of teams.

We were sometimes #1, usually top ten.

That thinking was alien to the sales manager…sales teams usually rely on competition. I greatly credit that sales manager for recognizing the value of my suggestion for my team.

What is alleged (not proven…but my guess is that the article’s authors are reporting accurately what they had heard) isn’t what I would want in my company, and isn’t what has worked for me. My guess is that it would produce some  good results…and suppress others.  I don’t think it would be illegal…just, for me, ill advised.

My intuition is that Jeff Bezos wouldn’t have known about it…that it would have been something that developed in a loosely supervised, decentralized company, where the people in Seattle might not have a firm hand on the corporate culture in New York, for example.

If that’s the case, and this is all speculation, I think it could be fixed.

None of this makes me any less likely to shop at Amazon. It would be different if what was alleged was illegal.

The presentation in the article is more of people being jerks than being crooks.

I think the article is significant enough  to have an impact…and that’s a good thing.

What do you think?  Do you believe the article? If so, does it change how you feel about being an Amazon customer? Is competition necessary within a team? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Bonus deal: this may be too late for some of you, but two of Amazon’s Fire tablets are $30 off today only:

Update: thanks to two of my regular readers (Harold Delk and Edward Boyhan) and commenters for catching me on a substitution error. I have corrected that error (I had attributed something the NYT did do another (main)streamer…and the two are quite different), which has improved this post.

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This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.


15 Responses to “New York Times describes Amazon as a “Bruising Workplace”; Bezos responds”

  1. Harold Delk Says:

    You may want to do a quick edit; do not think you intended to reference the WSJ as having interviewed folks for a NYT piece.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Harold!

      D’oh! Just a simple substitution error. Interesting to me that I think of them as both (main)streamers, even though they are very different. They also both have TLAs…Three Letter Acronyms.

      I really appreciate you letting me know…and gosh, people actually read the article that carefully. 😉

  2. Edward Boyhan Says:

    You mention in your post that the WSJ had talked to 100 employees and ex employees — I was not aware that the WSJ had done any such thing. Do you have a link? Or did you mean to say the NYT had talked to 100?

    My sense of the NYT article was that they cherry-picked the stories to report on. My sister is a high ranking executive with another big retailer. Her job is to flush out the kinds of events described in the NYT article, and (usually) get the involved managers replaced. She says that there are plenty of these kinds of events every year — even though the corporate culture is very clear that these things are not to be tolerated.

    The author of the NYT article has written repeatedly about Amazon, and always with a negative perspective. Many comments in the tech press (especially those within Silicon Valley) are not particularly outraged. Tough meritocratic policies in tech companies are quite common. The use of “up or out” approaches, and the use of things like stack ranking have a long history — and not just in the tech sector.

    Just yesterday I had occasion to turn to Amazon customer support to resolve an issue with an order. I have to say that the quickness of their response, their pleasant tone, and ability to get the issue resolved didn’t at all jibe with the tone of the NYT article.

    Quite frankly, I think Amazon’s tenacious focus on the customer first means more to me than just about anything else — especially given the execrable support you get from most other retailers :grin.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      As Harold had correctly surmised, it was simply an error.

      I agree with you that calling Amazon on all this is like blaming Rin Tin Tin as an individual dog for having teeth. 😉

      I think you can get a pretty good idea of how the Mayday people really feel about their jobs…especially if you get them to laugh. 🙂 I’ve had a few of those interactions, and they seem pretty happy…even though they might feel like they could have more resources.

  3. Phink Says:

    My 2nd job when I was 18 was a pizza delivery driver starting in 1984. Over the next few years I slowly worked my way up to Store Manager, and then Area Marketing Coordinator over 12 stores.

    At one point the franchise decided to have an annual awards banquet. Here they’d hand out $100 to the driver of the year for each store, $1,500 to the manager of the year, and so on. This is late 80’s and early 90’s money. The person who won manager of the year was happy of course but it never failed that a minimum of 2 or 3 (usually more) store managers who did not win were upset because there was no doubt that in their minds they should have won. One of our managers told me once that if he ever franchised he would never have an awards banquet because it just makes people mad. He now owns 3 stores and he does not give out any awards at all.

    We also had a huge trophy called ‘The Best of the Best’ and it was a monthly traveling trophy. The best of the 12 stores kept it for a month. Again, it was not black and white on the criteria which I did not like. It should have been based on something that anyone could plainly see such as highest sales increase percentage over the same month last year or something like that. There was a lot of criteria but something like 10 or 15% of your overall score was based on what the Area Supervisor thought which was completely his opinion. Of course folks would sometimes get upset about that because they thought they should have won and the Store Manager got a $100 bonus that month plus the trophy. $100 was not much considering managers got a percentage of the profit and the average bonus check for our area in the early 90’s was probably $800 a month (the biggest during my time was $2,400). The $100 and bragging rights was enough to make people a little upset however.

    As a manager I was very demanding but very fair in my opinion. I demanded fantastic customer service. I would not tolerate for a second anyone that risked us losing a customer. If you could not basically kiss the customers back side if they asked you to then you could not work for me. We could not survive without customers but we also would not achieve great things without great employees. Happy employees are good employees. There are those that will be bad employees no matter what but for most that is not the case. In a business that had no benefits it was hard to keep good people so I did all I could for them such as trading a speed lube type business pizzas or oil changes a couple times a year. I’d give the manager 10 free pizza coupons for 10 free oil change coupons and give them to the drivers. Stuff like that.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      Excellent stories!

      Exactly the point: if you have ten salespeople, and one person gets a bonus for being the “best”, nine people are told they weren’t the best. Either they believe that (which will have a negative impact on their performance in the future), or they don’t believe it…in which case they don’t trust the company.

      However, it’s still motivating to reward people…if you give them something which benefits their families (money can do that) or other support system, they get encouragement from home, which is very powerful.

      That’s why I gave an award based on average group performance. I wanted to motivate everyone to make the group as good as possible…and to have that effort be justifiable as far as their support systems were concerned.

      It seemed to work. 🙂

      By the way, supposedly the number one motivator is food…more than money. People would rather have a ten dollar lunch than $10, hypothetically.

      • Phink Says:

        Your food v. money comment is probably true. I now work 12 hours a week for a hardware company. After either 60 or 90 days accident free the store gets a free meal. Huh! I’ve been there 4 1/2 years and come to think of it I don’t know how many days it takes. When they present me food I eat it and don’t think about the criteria I guess LOL. I think probably 90% or more employees rather have that free meal than the cost equivalent. Especially since our store has a very small budget for the meal. I think around $400 for 100 or so people. People love that free meal.

        We also are eligible for quarterly bonus checks and everybody in the store gets one or nobody does. Even part time people get these checks. Of course some positions get more money than other positions but we all win or we all fail as a team.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Phink!

        Yep…people tend to appreciate food more than the cash value, at least in small, consumable amounts. I suppose someone might prefer $1,000 to $1,000 worth of food. 🙂 I think you need to be able to eat the food then for the incentive to work well.

        Another thing that can be very effective is time and attention from the boss. Having lunch with your manager (paid by the manager) can be super effective.

        I like the team thing in your last paragraph. The one place to be careful about that is that the participating employees need to feel that they can affect getting the bonus in some way.

      • Phink Says:

        Something I should have mentioned that is in line with what you said. You said

        if you have ten salespeople, and one person gets a bonus for being the “best”, nine people are told they weren’t the best.

        In our company that was literally true. This upset a few people as well. Our franchise might have been successful by most people’s standards but it was not because of his words or speeches. Every year after handing out the manager of the year award he’d give for the most part, the same speech. He’d say something along the lines of “If you did not win maybe you need to look at yourself and figure out why you did not win. Maybe you need to go that extra mile and work a little harder.” Nobody dared tell him but that really got people upset. Back then the average store manager worked about 60 hours a week. Some close to 70 if labor cost were high. At least once or twice a week we’d do an O/C (Open to Close). That’s arriving at 10:30 AM and leaving between 1:30 AM and 2:30 AM. You want to make an employee mad? Just tell them they need to work a little harder after two O/C’s in a row just to get up at 7 AM in order to make an awards banquet 2 hours away on their day off. The excellent pay was the only thing that kept people around plus the thought of maybe franchising. Back then even Bill Gates could not franchise if he wanted. You had to be a manager for one year before you could be approved. Not the case now. Anyway, more examples of what not to do.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Pink!

        I made the mistake of figuring out how many hours a week I was working as the manager of a gamestore at the holidays…120. That seems impossible to some people, but it’s not if you leave the store at 1 or 2 AM and are back at 6 or 7 AM. I just didn’t want some relatively low paid assistant manager (I didn’t control their salaries) to work 80 hours a week. So, I would both open and close the store. There were quite a few things to do while the store was closed, including merchandising….very hard to do when the store is open and it’s the busy holiday season.

        When I trained managers are changing employee behavior, I would say you need to tell them three things:

        * Tell them what they are doing now
        * Tell them what you want them to do
        * Tell them how to achieve the change

        People would be okay with the metrics and goals (point one and two), but I would get pushback on the last one.

        If you can’t tell them what they need to do differently, you can’t expect them to do it. You should understand what works better than they do…you have the big picture.

  4. harry160 Says:

    If you don’t like your job, then leave. There is no perfect job when you work fo someone else. Too many want to use their phone on company time.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, harry160!

      Jeff Bezos also made the point that highly skilled tech employees are in a sellers’ market…they can change jobs relatively easily.

      However, many people don’t want to want to leave a company. They have a loyalty to the business…it’s a bit like leaving a marriage.

      As to your second point: I’d be very interested to see any data that supports that a company which explicitly approves checking some personal things while at work has less productive employees than one that draws a hard and fast line about that.

      That isn’t my intuition.

      My belief is that if you let people do some personal things at work (especially on their own phones, as you suggest), they will tend to be more productive.

      There are three main points on that:

      1. If they aren’t checking their phones and there is something weighing on their minds, that will continuously distract them. I see that as a trainer. When I’m working one on one with someone, we get a lot more done if I let them answer a text or take a call from a Significant Other than if I don’t

      2. If your employees consider work a part of their lives, not apart from it, you’ll benefit. I would wager that people allowed to check their personal e-mail at work will spend a lot more time checking their business e-mail at home than they do their personal e-mail at work. If you set a hard and fast rule, nothing personal at work, that may translate into also meaning no work stuff at home

      3. Would some people abuse it? Sure. Would those people be productive employees without it? Nope. If they aren’t personally motivated to do their jobs, it’s just a question of what they are going to do instead, not if they are going to do something else. You let people go for failing to do the job…not for checking their personal e-mails, in my opinion

  5. Edward Boyhan Says:

    The WSJ had a piece today commenting on the NYT article:

    The above link may be behind the paywall 😦

    The most interesting point for me was this comment from the NYT comments on the article:

    “For what it’s worth, here’s comment #5201: I think the article was a bit overdone and lacking in balance. The Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote Tuesday that the story “was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote.” I am sure there are many accurate facts in the story, but as Ms. Sullivan pointed out, many companies in the tech industry have similar policies and cultures. And some anonymous employee sources seemed to be looking for a way to vent.”

    Apparently the Times ombudsman has again issued a mild rebuke to the authors on tone and balance — FWIW

    The WSJ article also pointed out that the NYT article generated a record number of comments 😀 .

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      There has continued to be a lot of buzz about that article. I think, generally, it’s not impacting Amazon’s standing with their customers. It would be different if it was something apparently illegal, or even atypical…and I’m not sure people are seeing it as the latter.

  6. Round up #304: One Murder More giveaway, swarming Amazon | I Love My Kindle Says:

    […] New York Times describes Amazon as a “Bruising Workplace”; Bezos responds […]

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