Amazon culture admirable but warped

September 21, 2015 — by Katherine Sun

As harsh as Amazon’s white-collar work environment may be, many aspects of its tech culture are still admirable. The company simply needs to correct certain precepts gone wrong.

Eighty-hour work weeks. Employees weeping at desks. A woman expected to get back to work the day after her miscarriage.

This seemingly nightmarish workplace actually belongs to Amazon, the popular online retail company. On Aug. 15, the New York Times published a story by reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld called “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” The article prompted debates across the web, with the majority of commenters expressing disgust and disbelief.

       Yet as harsh as Amazon’s white-collar work environment may be, many aspects of its tech culture are still admirable. The company simply needs to correct certain precepts gone wrong.

       These leadership principles include “Customer Obsession” and “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” Whereas many argue that the company takes “obsession” far beyond context and fosters a culture in which employees clash, I believe this attitude suits Amazon well.

       This culture is unique to the company and affords a one-of-a-kind opportunity for those who can thrive in the environment. It brings out the best in employees who only feel pushed in a fast-paced, competitive atmosphere. Though many people, including myself, wouldn’t want to work there, we have to recognize that Amazon has challenged its employees to raise the standards for themselves and for the people around them.

       I believe the company’s culture is driven by CEO Jeff Bezos’s desire to leave a legacy behind. Perhaps he fears that Amazon will grow stagnant, as in the case of companies like Microsoft and HP. In order to fulfill his vision of a lean, cutting-edge company, he demands that he has the most dedicated and skilled white-collar workers he can get.

Former Amazon marketing manager Jenny Dibble told Bloomberg Businessweek, “It’s a weird mix of a startup that is trying to be supercorporate and a corporation that is trying hard to still be a startup.”

Not everyone sees the company this way. Plenty of Amazon customers have reacted negatively, with some even vowing to stop using the company’s services altogether. Bestselling author John Green, who is famous for his teen novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” wrote on Twitter that the article “made [him] cancel [his] Amazon Prime subscription. Worst cult ever.”

       Yet for the most part, the Amazon employees portrayed in the Times article know what they’re getting into. At their introductory orientation, for instance, they’re handed 14 laminated cards that each displays one of Amazon’s stringent leadership principles.

These employees are all highly skilled and valued in the technology industry. If the company is not right for them, they can simply walk out — an option available at any time, whether they’ve worked at the company for weeks or for years.

Compare this to taking an AP class. Students decide whether they want to add the class to their schedules by considering their own priorities and advice from people like guidance counselors. Once school starts, AP teachers outline their expectations, which are higher than those of regular courses; AP courses demand more of students and move at a rapid pace. The students, like Amazon workers, are subsequently able to opt out. The only difference between Amazon and an AP class is that the Amazon workers can leave at any time, while students have only six weeks to drop a class.

All of this breeds a culture that, in theory, inspires ambition and innovation.

“When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging,” Susan Harker, a top Amazon recruiter, told the Times.

Yet while I support Bezos’s vision, its implementation is clearly problematic. The New York Times article unveiled one story of a worker who was forced out of Amazon after being diagnosed with cancer and performing at what the company considered to be a substandard level. This extreme treatment of employees is inhumane and immoral — a sad example of the company culture gone out of hand.

I’d like to believe that Bezos is simply out of touch with his employees. In an email to them, he wrote that “tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” and he requested that they report troubling situations to human resources staff or even email him directly.

Five years ago I read a snippet called “Notable & Quotable” from the Wall Street Journal that quoted parts of Bezos’s commencement address at Princeton University. Several lines stuck out to me, and the snippet has been pinned to the wall above my desk ever since.

       “When you are 80-years-old, and in a quiet moment of reflection narrating for only yourself the most personal version of your life story, the telling that will be the most compact and meaningful will be the series of choices you have made. In the end, we are our choices. Build yourself a great story.”

      Bezos’s ideas are admirable, but they’ve been distorted to the point of disgrace. If he doesn’t correct the more extreme treatment of his employees, his vision won’t be what he started with — and, like John Green, I really will cancel that Amazon Prime subscription.

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