The Amazon Workplace Brouhaha


PC: Stephen Woods via Flickr CC

I have been out on vacation land for the last few days and been reading the Amazon workplace debate raging all over the interwebs. For a while I did not think I had time to comment and then a part of me did not want to comment either. But last night, I wanted to share this piece that had me laughing out loud.

Here’s the short article by Andy Borowitz (a satirist, btw) on The New Yorker:

Amazon Chief Says Employees Lacking Empathy Will Be Instantly Purged

SEATTLE (The Borowitz Report)—Saying that he was “horrified” by a New York Times article recounting callous behavior on the part of Amazon executives, company founder Jeff Bezos warned today that any employees found lacking in empathy would be instantly purged.

In an e-mail to all Amazon employees issued late Sunday evening, Bezos said that the company would begin grading its workers on empathy, and that the ten per cent found to be least empathic would be “immediately culled from the herd.

Then, through a new program called Next Day Purging, any employee found lacking in empathy will be removed from the company within twenty-four hours of Bezos’s termination order.

“We can’t be the greatest retailer in the world unless we are also the kindest,” Bezos wrote in his e-mail. “So my message to all Amazonians is loud and clear: be kind or taste my wrath. Love, Jeff.”

The whole article here at The New Yorker.

Guess Bezos is right on track with improving morale, ha ha. Nothing like culling the herd, right?

Gotta remember, this is a satirical piece.

What started this was an article on the New York Times that has been making rounds everywhere, including my feed on FB. If you haven’t come across the article already, here it is:

Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace

SEATTLE — On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon’s singular way of working.

They are told to forget the “poor habits” they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they “hit the wall” from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: “Climb the wall,” others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

The whole article here at NY Times

If you haven’t read the whole article, please do. I have worked at quite a few of high-tech rising up the Fortune list companies myself, I wonder if this article could be a placeholder for any up-and-coming company that is taking its competitors by their throats with their out-of-the-box thinking. Replace the name Amazon with pretty much any other name and yup, you get an article that would make people start panicking about the new big bad.

Anyway, the rebuttals were swift also. Here’s one on Forbes, by George Sanders:

What The NY Times Didn’t Tell You In Its Amazon Workplace Expose can be a tough place to work. In this 2012 Forbes cover story, I alluded to the online retailer’s stressful, low-perks culture, driven by founder Jeff Bezos’s nonstop ambitions. Now The New York Times has published a 5,700-word expose, chronicling endless cases of workers pushed to the breaking point as Amazon redefines the modern office to be “more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”

It’s a powerful read. You won’t forget the details of people crying at their desks or pulling four all-nighters in a row. Each anecdote feels complete, and in many cases the Times tries hard to explain Amazon management’s own perspective, even though the company provided only limited cooperation. But there’s one key anecdote in which the Times plays by different rules. Let’s take a closer look.

Early in the piece, the Times declares that Bezos “turned to data-driven management very early.” To back up that assertion, the Times shares a story of Bezos at age 10: “He wanted his grandmother to stop smoking, he recalled in a 2010 graduation speech at Princeton. He didn’t beg or appeal to sentiment. He just did the math, calculating that every puff cost her a few minutes. “You’ve taken nine years off your life!” he told her. She burst into tears.”

For some inexplicable reason, the Times doesn’t tell us what happened next. It’s all in the Princeton commencement talk, which can be accessed here or here. Bezos’s grandfather stopped the car. The old man signaled for his 10-year-old grandson to step outside. Once they were standing together, the old man said: “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

That encounter has haunted Bezos for a long time. At the close of his Princeton talk, Bezos posed a series of rhetorical questions to graduates, including: “Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?” and “Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?”

Read the whole article here at Forbes.

And then there was this piece by an Amazonian, Nick Ciubotariu, on LinkedIn, which I shall quote from right in the middle. But the whole article is a great read:

An Amazonian’s response to “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace”

Very long read. TL;DR version **:

Step 1: Have bias
Step 2: Find ex-employees with anecdotal stories that fit in with your bias
Step 3: Gather old stories and criticism while glossing over changes made to improve on that, and completely ignore that it’s still significantly better than industry practice
Step 4: Take half-truths and spin spin spin!!
Step 5: Publish article

Long version:

As I woke up ready to start the weekend (without the slightest inclination to work, I might add – much more on this later), I glanced at my iPhone to appease my Facebook addiction and see what my friends were up to. Much to my surprise, a New York Times article describing Amazon had polluted my feed.

Amazon is a big company, and gets referenced often. I’ve read many articles that describe us. Some are more accurate than others. Sadly, this isn’t one of them. This particular article, has so many inaccuracies (some clearly deliberate), that, as an Amazonian, and a proud one at that, I feel compelled to respond.

To baseline, no one asked or expected me to do this. As I cracked open my laptop to write this article, people were already discussing its existence on certain email distribution lists, and the expressions were mostly of disbelief at how uninformed the article was. It’s certainly not how I anticipated spending a good part of my Saturday. But I’m not going to stand idly by as a horribly misinformed piece of “journalism” slanders my company in public without merit. I don’t have the data to discuss the past – so I won’t. However, so much that is written here is deliberately painted to match current reality, and it does not, even by a stretch of the imagination. That is not responsible journalism – that’s a hatchet piece. So let’s correct that, starting now.

Go on, read it here on LinkedIn

My somewhat befuddled comments: Amazon wouldn’t be there at where it is unless its workforce did more than average. But a “bruising workplace?” I wonder if NY Times went and interviewed the Borders employees and put up an article like this, or how about having a survey of the Nook people?

Maybe, those are tiny crumbs in the big scheme of things and not worth the effort. And if anyone had to pick between writing about the heavyweight in the industry or a faded bastion, the choice would be pretty obvious.

I also have to concede that journalism is tricky business and the NY Times running an article that’s so heavy on anecdotes is not unexpected. Especially if that article is about Amazon, the mighty disruptor of the industry.

What I do not understand is that article being heralded on the webs by people in industries that have many of these practices in a variety of forms for ages. What is their agenda, I wonder? Are they simply being naive? Or do they lack the ability to exercise logic?

I hope, for my sanity’s sake, that they are just that–simple folk unable to see beyond the black and white of the printed word.

S.G. Basu is an aspiring potentate of a galaxy or two. She plots and plans with wondrous machines, cybernetic robots, time travelers and telekinetic adventurers, some of whom escape into the pages of her books. Once upon a previous life on planet Earth, S.G. Basu trained to be an engineer, and her interest in science and her love of engineering shows up time and again in her books.

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Posted in industry news, publishing news

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