Amazon’s workplace culture: Anachronistic, or coolly efficient?

A veteran HR exec was stunned to read the New York Times piece about life inside the behemoth online retailer, a depiction that founder Jeff Bezos denied. But does the model appeal to some?

“Nearly every person I worked with I saw cry at their desk,” said former Amazon employee Bo Olson, who worked in book marketing, “or they very wisely chose to leave Amazon.”

Over coffee the other morning, I glanced at my Google alerts and came across a New York Times article titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace. Twenty minutes later, I sat back and gazed out the window in astonishment. The quote above and those below were just a few of the statements from employees past and present.

Explanations such as, “We’re not totally sure,” or, “I’ll get back to you,” are not acceptable, many employees said. Some managers dismissed such responses as “stupid” or told workers to “just stop it.”

Ideas are critiqued so harshly in meetings at times that some workers fear speaking up.

“You learn how to diplomatically throw people under the bus,” said a marketer who spent six years in Amazon’s retail division. “It’s a horrible feeling.”

‘You either fit here, or you don’t’

A former HR executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon.

“What kind of company do we want to be?” the executive recalled asking her bosses. “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”

Many tech companies are racing to top one another’s family leave policies. Netflix just began offering up to a year of paid parental leave. Amazon, though, offers no paid paternity leave.

In a recent recruiting video, one young woman warns: “You either fit here, or you don’t. You love it, or you don’t. There is no middle ground.”

Eye-opening comments

As a proponent of engagement and creating a great work culture, I was shocked by the article.

If Amazon had been founded during the Industrial Revolution, I would not have batted an eye. Yet this is one of our newer companies, created around the Technology Revolution. In stark contrast to its Silicon Valley brethren, Amazon is charting new ground (or perhaps 150-year-old ground), according to this New York Times article.

It’s just about the work, and that is all that matters.

One striking thing was that some employees thrive in this high-pressure environment. To me, however, it was just sickening to see how a company could stand behind these types of policies.

Customer service vs. employee focus

What really intrigued me is that Amazon is renowned for its customer-first attitude. This is different from companies that focus on the employee, figuring that the workers are the most important part of the equation.

I couldn’t believe when I read the statement about the fulfillment center with no air conditioning—though it had an ambulance parked outside in case anyone had heat related issues. Eventually, it was forced to provide air conditioning.

Though some policies have shown success, my concern is about all the employee ambassadors who are leaving, with turnover being extremely high. Each person has a voice, and that gives everyone a bullhorn to amplify their thoughts. The comments from some former employees are just astonishing.

To each his own

As an HR executive, I know there is not enough money available to get me to work at a company with these types of personnel policies. Not only that, but Amazon’s constant playing of one employee against another is just sickening.

On the other hand, you can’t deny that it has been remarkably successful and has reached heights unheard of in terms of pushing its workforce to the limit. This environment would not be right for me, but there are people who will use the brand to build a career. They’ll get in, complete a few years’ work (if they are lucky) and then get out. The advantage of working with a strong brand is that it gives you an advantage in your job search.

My first job out of college was with IBM, the Google of its day. Working for IBM made my job search after that somewhat easier. So, here’s my thought for those who will leave Amazon soon: Remember that you have done your “time” and you will be rewarded at your next job.

At a minimum, you will know what work environment you do not want to toil in. You have been to the mountaintop, and you have seen what it is like.

Ron Thomas is managing director at StrategyFocused HR-MENA, based in Dubai. He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf countries, also based in Dubai. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com. A version of this article originally appeared on TLNT.

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