Amazon has built its reputation on a swift and sophisticated online shopping experience, but until now consumers have been largely unaware of the blood, sweat and tears that went into such constant development and innovation. The New York Times recently ran a special report on the eCommerce giant, comprising interviews with a number of former ‘Amazonians’. The end result paints a rather disturbing portrait of a company where employees are encouraged to tear each other down, every waking moment is quantified, and crying at one’s desk is a regular occurrence.
Amazon is just the latest big tech company to face an image crisis. This story closely follows a similar PR disaster at Tinder, where the dating app’s Twitter account got really defensive over a Vanity Fair piece which credited the company with heralding a “dating apocalypse”. And then there’s everyone’s favourite listicle factory, BuzzFeed, which is going through some troubles of its own, with founder Jonah Peretti coming under fire for expressing anti-union sentiments.
According to the article, the intense pressure of being an Amazonian means that staff burn out at an accelerated rate and are then jettisoned during the “purposeful Darwinism” of annual reviews. “The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last,” says one former employee of the company culture, a statement backed up by accounts of work emails which demanded a reply even after midnight, and jobs coming under threat due to illness and personal problems.
“I don’t recognise this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either,” CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in an internal memo following the publication of the report. “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.” Of course, no CEO worth their salt is going to hold their hands up and admit that the papers have got them bang to rights. And you might even suggest that Bezos’s note has more than a little “follow my lead if you know what’s good for you” about it.
But here’s the thing. Amazon is an ambitious company, which has helped to define the online marketplace. Should any of us really be so surprised to find that behind the curtain it’s not all mindfulness, meditation and beanbag chairs? Not every company is a nurturing Silicon Valley wonderland — if they were, we might not have any such thing as next day delivery. Still, while the dog-eat-dog, all-consuming coliseum of the New York Times piece is likely to be an exaggeration, Bezos and co. would do well to take this as an opportunity to take a look at their hiring and management practices.