So there’s been a little bit of attention on Amazon lately. For anyone who’s been disconnected this week, here’s the story so far.

Who said what?

The New York Times has written a rather lengthy expose of Amazon’s management culture. (Spoilers: it’s not complimentary. Long hours, unreasonable expectations, culture of misery, strategic removal of people with families or medical conditions…etc)

A relatively junior guy called Nick Ciubotariu has written an unsolicited social media denial from within the ranks that has garnered a lot of attention.

Jeff Bezos – the Amazon chief – has defended working practices formally in an e-mail to staff.

The Times article itself is pretty much what you’d expect: A cynical tone; lots of interviews with the departed; a smaller but fair number of interviews with the still-employed; hints of objective data – all of which could be disputed. Most importantly, it asks us to believe that worrying individual examples are endemic to culture and not just unusual or even unique cases, whose presence is inevitable in a company that employs 40,000 people.

Ciubotariu’s rebuttal is heartfelt and authentic. It reads as genuine to any reasonable person, if only for the fact that if you were going to fake it, you’d fake it better. Or rather, you’d fake it worse. His well written letter to the world is rather rah-rah, and lacks any willingness to confront the inescapable: that Amazon is a proudly demanding employer with huge aspirations and that this is bound to have caused issues given the 20 years of operation and the enormous number of present and former employees. I’ll be interested to hear his take a couple of years after he leaves. I hope it’s the same; he seems like a good guy.

Bezos’s letter to staff is blandness in a bottle. ‘I don’t recognize the company described; I hope you don’t; please report any nastiness to me.’ It’s important that he said it, and he wasted no time in circulating the Ciubotariu post along with his own thoughts, but it’s as inspiring as the Seattle sky in February.


There’s nothing different about Amazon

To my point. I think there’s something everyone in business knows about Amazon, even if – like me – you’ve never set foot in the place: Amazon is not a perfect place to work.

It is populated entirely by human beings, thrust together without any real thought about how they might get on individually. Sure you can think about others in a department when you bring in a new hire, but fast forward a year and everything’s changed: people have come and gone; roles have changed; priorities are different.

Businesses are very much like families. Not in that desperately cheesy marketing way, but in a very real way. We don’t choose the people we end up with. We’re in far too close quarters to get on well all the time and it’s not everyday that our priorities and needs line up perfectly. In fact it isn’t any day usually.

You do your best to get on with as many people as you can while you work on your own priorities – the things that matter most to you and yours. Some days you’ll end up at work like you end up at home over Christmas, hiding out in the bathroom for ten minutes of sanity because it’s the only room in the building with a door you can lock.

Work is work. Some of us do it because we love it; most of us do it because we have to and some of us don’t do it at all. Even if we’ve got a building pass and a regular pay check.

We all know that Amazon’s truth is probably broadly the same as everyone else’s.

If things were as bad as the worst interpretation, the company would go under. People know they don’t have to go to work and cry at their desk, so they won’t. They’ll go and work somewhere else. It’s as reassuring to me as an employee as it is annoying to me as an employer that you are only in thrall to your employer for as long as you choose to work there.

If you don’t like it – quit. If you desperately need the money (and we’re talking about white-collar professionals here) line something else up before you quit.

Does Amazon encourage the ‘bruising’ work place of the Times’ titular accusation? To some I’m sure it does. To others, I’m sure it doesn’t. But I have to say that every accusation leveled at Amazon by the Times and backed up by the selection of former employees has been leveled at every employer I’ve ever had.


Unanswered questions

My irritation with the article is that it sets up a couple of questions that it never attempts to answer: to what degree is Amazon’s focus on hard work and the dogged pursuit of results effective? To what degree does its culture give it an edge in a world full of table tennis meetings and nap pods?

There is also the issue that nobody dares address: If working culture requires long hours and additional commitments, what attitude do you take toward employees with other priorities – families, illnesses, personal problems? You can make all the noise you want about what’s legal, ethical or just plain fair but it’s just noise. When a project requires the eighty hour weeks that many of the Amazonians describe, you’re either going to miss work or miss the dance recital. You can’t possibly keep pace if you’re battling a significant health issue. You have three choices as a business. You either have a two tier system where some employees are all in and others have a work life balance, or you manage out the people who cannot do the eighty hours, or you encourage everyone to maintain a work life balance and not work the additional hours. There is no fourth option.

To what extent is it your job as an employee to make a call as to whether you can always fit the culture, based on what you know? The most obvious comparison is law firms where hours are excessive, expected and the only way to partnership. Everyone knows you’re not going to make it if anything interferes with those hours. This is a subject worth a long discussion. These firms don’t distinguish between a having a baby and having a drug problem. We may find that fact abhorrent, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

Is anyone out there going to bite the bullet and say to potential employees at demanding companies that this needs to be your attitude: – ‘I’m going to work the hours I know will be involved and I accept that if a time comes when I cannot work the hours, then I will most likely not fit in anymore.’ Then no matter what it is that makes it impossible for you to work the hours, you accept that you went into it with your eyes open. When you dance with the devil, you wait for the song to stop. Nobody in the pool of former
Amazonians interviewed took this attitude. Would it be fair to ask them to? That’s another interesting discussion we’re not having.

Individual Case vs Standard Practice

A few years back I fired a guy for shouting abuse at someone in our office. If the victim called the Times and told his story, I couldn’t say it was untrue. I couldn’t say it didn’t happen. What matters is that to the best of my knowledge it only happened once and was dealt with. I’ve worked in fairly pressurized environments for years and so have many of my friends; wouldn’t it be more remarkable if I’d never encountered that behavior?

I hope that even the former employees with the ugliest stories might recognize the difference between something that happened to them and something that happens as a matter of strategy or culture. The Times interviewees don’t seem too concerned about the distinction.

People are all Amholes sometimes

So how many of the Amazon issues are cultural? It’s impossible to say. The Times article certainly won’t help you. Unless you’re prepared to accept that the formalization into process of conventions that exist in every business in the land constitute some form of institutional nastiness.

In one quick example: Amazon have a system of ‘anytime feedback’. Every company in the world has that. It’s called praising someone you think did a good job to their boss. It’s also called sticking it to that guy who never shows up to meetings. I’ve got a phone. I’ve got e-mail. If I want you under the bus, you’re going. You can do the same to me too. If you create a framework for human beings to interact, you won’t stop them being human beings. People will be generous and harsh and complimentary and uncomplimentary and fair and unfair in the same way they will be if you don’t set up any framework at all. We’re people. If we have a good day, we’ll let something minor slide. If we have a bad day, we’ll take something minor far too seriously. It’s what we do.

People will always be capable of seeing the same thing two different ways on two different days.

  • John the IT guy is hopeless. He never seems to fix anything properly and he’s constantly unavailable. I should just go to Best Buy.
  • John the IT guy is great. He’s expected to service far too many people with practically no budget. I wish they gave him more resources.

Same guy. Same situation. Two different days. It’s the human condition. Everyone’s a bit of an Amhole some days; it’s nothing to be afraid of.

The market will not protect tyrants

Ultimately, there’s a reality to be accepted here that’s the result of universal convention and market forces. Amazon can’t be much worse than any other business. ‘We the people’ of the working world have decided en-masse what acceptable levels of stress, work, conflict and difficulty are acceptable. If you’re outside acceptable levels, you’ll just lose people. You won’t need the New York Times to tell you that you’ve got a problem. Your balance sheet and your turnover rate will do that for you. Mr Bezos has complete dominion over every single person at Amazon, right up to the point where they stand up, put their pot plant in a box and walk out into the Seattle drizzle. Beyond that point he has no power whatsoever.

I don’t know if Bezos is the evil billionaire pushing a culture of management abuse, or the benevolent father raising all his children in a minefield. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It usually does.

My advice to current and future Amazonians? Find out what you’re getting into before you take a job and feel free to leave when the reality moves too far from the things you want from life. It’s the same advice I’d give anybody else.



Richard Spragg

Richard Spragg is the CEO of Hirebrand. He is based in Houston, Texas. His blogs on business, marketing and the staffing industry have been read by over 200,000 people. Follow him on Twitter at @richard_spragg.