The 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.
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:
I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
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