Jeff Bezos’ non-denial denial of the New York Times Amazon takedown

amazonThe New York Times published a brutal takedown of Amazon culture this past weekend. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent around an internal email to deny the charges. But Bezos’ reply is so weak, it makes you wonder if his heart it is in it.

The Amazon story, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” suggests through a bunch of anecdotal quotes that working at Amazon is like the Bataan Death March. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk,” says one employee. According to the Times, not only does Amazon cull a significant numbers of staff each year, but it also nudges people out of the workplace after miscarriages and cancer treatments because they couldn’t keep up with the demands of work. And there’s this: “One ex-employee’s fiancé became so concerned about her nonstop working night after night that he would drive to the Amazon campus at 10 p.m. and dial her cellphone until she agreed to come home.”

How accurate is the story? It’s certainly plausible, given Amazon’s image for toughness and innovation. If it weren’t true, Jeff Bezos would have to deny it.

Geekwire obtained Jeff Bezos’ internal email about the article. I’ve reproduced the whole thing below.

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff

Imagine for a moment that you worked at Amazon and received this email. Here’s what you learned:

  • Rather than deny any of the specifics in the article, my CEO wants me to read a rambling denial by a random staffer.
  • Jeff Bezos “doesn’t recognize this Amazon” and “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.” So the strongest Bezos can say is “I don’t see this” rather than “this is not happening”? Is he just out of touch?
  • If the culture at Amazon is the one described in the article, would you feel safe reporting it to HR or to Bezos himself? Or would the Amazon management response be “Oh yeah, this guy already has a bunch of bad reviews, he’s just whining.” According to the article, there’s already an internal mechanism for reporting on other employees. It clearly hasn’t solved the problem, in fact, it’s made it worse.
  • Note the use of “hopefully,” as in “But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described.” So my CEO “hopes” that Amazon is better than this. That’s not very reassuring. (Any sentence featuring the word “hopefully” is meaningless.)

Here’s my analysis. This is exactly the kind of non-denial denial that I would issue if I thought my company’s cutthroat culture was fine, but had to respond to the article in some way.

Here’s my short, honest version of Bezos’ email: 

It was very embarrassing to see the most negative, horrifying, and brutal parts of our culture exposed in The New York Times. We’re a hard-charging place to work. People do some awful things to keep up the work, but I don’t see it from my office. I’m about data and results, not so much methods. If you see a problem, you could email me or HR and something might change, or you might get in trouble; go ahead and find out! Keep working hard, ok?

And here’s the version he would have written if he actually wanted things to change.

It was very embarrassing to see the most negative, horrifying, and brutal parts of our culture exposed in The New York Times. I know I’m pretty tough, and that Amazon’s culture comes down from the top. While we must keep innovating, we have been too hard on people. I have hired an independent investigator to conduct a 16-week investigation into the worst parts of our culture, and I promise to make changes based on what the investigation reveals. Also, starting immediately, I will review our principles and instruct our head of HR to make changes, including protection for employees who are experiencing health problems or grieving. We might end up a little less competitive as a result of these changes. But that’s a small price to pay for treating our irreplaceable employees as human beings.

If you work at Amazon and see this email, tell me, please. Somehow, I don’t think I’ll hear from you.

Photo: Bataan Death March from National Archives and Records Administration through Wikimedia Commons

22 responses to “Jeff Bezos’ non-denial denial of the New York Times Amazon takedown

  1. I would argue that this is not even a denial. All he did was say when we are so bad we are nearly breaking the law then report us. Otherwise, go take one of those dozens of job offers you get from someplace else. The whole line of argument of “it was as bad as the article says, people would be leaving in droves” is bullshit. There are plenty of very successful companies that are tough to work. As long as the stock is a rocket ship ride up people will endure for the rewards. A great place to work and a great place to get rich are not automatically correlated. Both take care and feeding.

    1. It is not a denial. It is a threat.

      If you work at Amazon, you know what he means. You know what Amazon is like. You know they turn a blind eye to complaints, unless you make so much noise they have to fire you.

      If I was still working at Amazon and received that email I would immediately hit “delete.” It is altogether possible a majority of the responses were replied to with a letter of termination.

      1. Well these big companies are monitored by authorities and need to be compliant to be transparent to employees where they can address these concerns, most of the time this is an independent authority where you can post your complaint anonymously and they will investigate if multiple complaints come in.
        Sadly a lot of people feel intimidated or feel it’s worthless filling in such a form.
        The best you can do is report it internally and create backups of your emails in case if you’re not heard you can inform authorities with copies of your officially reported complaints.
        If you’re afraid to loose your job because your bringing things up; then you really should not work at such a company who treats persons as pawns.
        I know, easier said then done but there are authorities to help out with this: use them!

  2. Sounds much like many companies were run in 1915 rather than 2015.

    There are companies like this still today. I was working at one part-time for a short time until 18 months ago. I never knew when I would work until up to 12 hours before, but be on 24/7 call duty. Was told not to make definite plans during the week.

    The cruelest I thought was back in 1976 when my father died (my mother had passed 2 years before). Before I left the office to make the funeral arrangements, my boss said to “Be sure your back in the office the day after the funeral”.

    He never came to the wake(was only 1 1/2 miles from the office/plant.

  3. Weird take on this story, designed to get noticed? Bezos comes off like a reflective guy to me, rather than a megalomaniac spouting denials or anger, unlike how many CEOs would have reacted. He’s smart enough to know that in a huge organization, he can’t see and hear everything, and therefore he only can honestly say “the Amazon that I know”. Naturally some writers who need fuel for their fire need to twist this, in a “bullshity” way I might add, into what you have. As a matter of fact, you can imagine ANY reaction from him and you could have written an article tearing it apart…that was you mission, or need. Lame.

    1. I’ve written about other CEO messages in a positive way. I just call them as I see them based on 20 years as a technology analyst. Bezos could have done much better. If you were a middle manager at Amazon, would you read this and say “Bezos has my back?” I don’t think so.

    2. Thank you Paul333 for having a voice of reason and some sense. I read this article and thought that Bezos handled the matter like a true leader by acknowledging the NYT article and then seeking feedback from his group. In no way was his response some type of verification that the company culture is as it was described in the NYT article. How the author came to this conclusion is a mystery to me, but he/she was looking to grind an ax and, of course, business leaders are all authoritarian dictator types that run their poor employees into the ground so Bezos must be the same. Not sure how I got linked to this site, but I won’t make that mistake again. I may still shop Amazon, but I won’t share this hack site with anyone I know. Best wishes.

    3. And your position with Amazon is?

      He’s smart enough to know his organization is large enough he can deny any specifics, but it is far too late for such denials to be plausible. How many lawsuits and complaints can you ignore?

  4. I’ve interviewed via phone for several content-related positions at Amazon. Without a doubt Amazonians (ugh – horrible name) are the most robotic people I’ve ever interviewed with in my 25 year business career. If you look up “interviews” on GlassDoor, it really is what people say it is.

    There was no attempt at a personal connection; Even the “how are you?” greetings were blah. They won’t give you anyone’s last name – “Robert will call you at 1:00” – and you have no idea who the person is and where he/she sits in the organization. It could be the person you’re going to report to or someone on the team or a person on another team. You’re basically flying blind because you don’t have any context. One man I interviewed with looked me up on LinkedIn so was able to look up his profile. It turns out that he is from the same small town I grew up in and went to school in the same state. It was funny (odd) that he wouldn’t have said “Hey, I grew up in XX town too.” or “Our alma maters are playing one another this fall. Are you going to the game?” (My university and his are fierce competitors.) Sure, there is a limited amount of time for chit-chat but it just seemed weird to me.

    One job description wasn’t accurate and I spoke to the topic and answered questions for 10 minutes based upon the job description before the guy told me “well, the job description isn’t exactly accurate on the site. This isn’t for the retail side. Its for academic journals.” What?!? There are different ways to create and execute a content strategy and it depends on the market and channel and I was speaking to the wrong one.

    Regarding the focus on data… I’m a big data person. I was an industry analyst at a market research firm so I understand the value of data. In one interview the guy asked me the same data expertise question 10 different ways; My answer wasn’t going to change because it was the right one and yet he kept at it. Finally, he asked me “What’s your favorite Excel formula?” I almost burst out laughing.

    Weirdness.

  5. Don’t believe everything you read on the web. I work for Amazon and I love it. Yes, there are bad managers that can make peoples’ days hell, and while that is not the norm, you’ll have that at any workplace. The pay and benefits at Amazon are great. Did any of you know that Amazon will pay 95% of tuition for four years plus all books for four years? For ANY associate? How many companies do that? You must understand that anyone who has a negative experience with anything is very quick to get online and bitch about it. No one ever talks about the positive things.

    1. Actually, if you read the article objectively, you will see that there are a lot of positives in it. One wants to take them with a pinch of salt, though because they comes from Amazon-approved spokespeople.

      Also see the Medium article https://medium.com/@jcheiffetz/i-had-a-baby-and-cancer-when-i-worked-at-amazon-this-is-my-story-9eba5eef2976. That kind of treatment of a woman with a baby and cancer can’t just be ascribed to bad management on one manager’s part. Even if it can, for someone as data-driven as Bezos, not wondering if other such bad suspects may abound in his company is a little too suspicious, don’t you think, Jimmy?

      1. I came here from the cancer/baby article.

        What I gathered from her story is that:

        1. Some glitch in the insurance system temporarily invalidated her insurance. This was badly timed and freaked her out. But she ultimately switched to her husband’s insurance ON HER OWN.

        2. After her leave she came back to find the people who used to report to her had been shifted to a new team under new supervision. Ok. This seems logical. What were they supposed to do for the 5 months she was gone?

        3. She was put into a Performance Improvement Program, which she took to mean “I will soon be fired”..and she then quit ON HER OWN.

        Could it not be that the program she was put into was to re-acclimatize her? Catch her up to speed?

        I absolutely encourage all efforts to improve the support structures for employees who have children (both men and women, equally), and those who have health problems.

        But the reality is that she checked out from work for 5 months. She cannot realistically expect things to stand still while she is gone.

        There is a balance to be struck somewhere, but I feel Mrs. Cheiffetz was reaching a bit.

        1. 1. As opposed to doing what, hoping that the system doesn’t glitch again during a period when she was going through two staggeringly major life events? She should have had faith and plowed through?

          2. I don’t know, have someone take on her responsibilities temporarily and tell her when she came back that her desk was ready for her when she was. It’s a thing and it happens and surprisingly, at companies that are bootstrapping and all-hands-on-deck all the time.

          3. A performance improvement plan that a lot of people thought back then was code for, ‘You’re being watched’. Imagine the mental setup of a new mother who has just also been told that she has cancer. Most of us (with the exception of a few) would actually break open at the seams. Imagine then that you are being told you have been placed on a PIP, one that you have heard horror stories about and one that you are probably suspecting means your worst fears are probably being confirmed right to your face. What would you do, stick around to find out for real?

          Of course, a business like Amazon’s has to run on policies but that in no way means empathy or a culture that makes employees feel safe have to be sacrificed. It wasn’t just one of those things that went wrong either. It was all of those things together.

          Do read Ciubotariu’s post on LinkedIn. He emphasizes that Amazon is indeed empathetic and caring ‘now’ several times throughout. Since when did the attitude ’employee quit on her own, nothing we can do about it’ foster and retain talent?

        2. People can be helped without being placed on Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs). Putting people on PIPs damages their prospects at Amazon and has been used by managers in the past to get rid of employees with whom they had personality/chemistry issues

  6. The one thing that clue that showed it was a non-denial denial, was the lack of data from Bezos to the internal employees. For a company so concerned about data, why not show the data to your internal employees? They decided not to, because they most likely know what the data says.

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