Understanding Amazon: A Professional Crisis

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Sunday morning proved difficult for the world’s largest retailer, Amazon. A New York Times feature described their cruel professional culture. Littered with personal anecdotes of managers and leaders abusing employees, the piece shed light on an indifferent corporate machine that valued business productivity more than contributing employees. Reading it made me sick to my stomach and eager to avoid buying anything on Amazon; however, I realized a few valuable lessons from the author’s portrayal.

Here are the facts:

  • Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld spoke with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees about their experience working there.

The authors’ accusations include:

  • Actively pursuing a culture centered on professional Darwinism to preserve “Amazon’s way of working…. More nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.” As part of this culture, the company works to “starve off mediocrity” laying off low performing workers (relative to their peers) annually.
  • Conflict fuels every decision within the company. “Amazonians are instructed to ‘disagree and commit’… to rip into colleagues ideas, with feedback that can be blunt to the point of pain.”
  • Decisions at the organization depend on analytics and peer reviews garnered through anonymous reporting channels. During each employees business review they receive a 60-page report regarding their statistical productivity.
  • The article cites numerous systematic problems leading to employee breakdowns, stress related to long hours and lack of respect for work life balance.

In defense of the organization, Jay Carney, a former White House Press Secretary for President Barack Obama and current Senior Vice President at Amazon, appeared on CBS This Morning. Here’s the video:

After all this, we’re left to wonder, what should we make of an organization with these alleged policies? My response: I don’t know. While that obscurity may seem odd as the “authoritative writer” of this blog, I don’t know what is true and what isn’t. Many continue to question the articles validity and bias. Regardless of your take, we should take away 5 lessons:

First, before you start work somewhere, know the workplace expectations, culture and people. How many hours are you expected to work each week? Who are you working along side day-after-day? You must find this information during the interview process to make an informed decision about where you should work.

Second, learn quickly who your real friends are in the office. Not everyone looks out for your best interests. In fact many will actively work to undermine your success. At Amazon, many people expressed frustration with their peer review process and believed that many employee coalitions formed to push certain people out. While not as extreme in most offices, keep your guard up, mind what you say and always act professionally.

Third, work to understand rather than be understood. In many large organizations, organizational change comes from a boardroom far removed from the average employee. If you find yourself upset, angry or frustrated, work to understand the reasons behind the policy decision before asking others to understand your perspective. Should you need to change jobs in response to this policy, you can move forward knowing the facts empowered with information.

Fourth, as employers, work to maximize each employee’s potential with specific attention to their personal circumstances. The Amazon described forgets the latter. Every employee deserves fair treatment while their organization demands their best work. Work with someone (reasonably, of course) and you’ll get his or her best.

Last, a positive take away from Amazon’s example, understand your organization’s goals and work tirelessly to achieve them. Amazon executives developed a plan (for better or worse) in light of their goals. All businesses need to plan for success. At Marchon Partners, we help firms plan their hiring practices around their goals. Cross-organizational planning lays the foundation for employees to build long-term success.

I encourage everyone to take the time to read the piece independent of this commentary; however, I hope that these points help you as an employer or employee to work smarter.

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