Expose of Amazon’s ‘Bruising Workplace’ Stirs Furious Debate

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Amazon is making big headlines this week, and not for a new Prime offering or a Black Friday in July sale.

A damning profile of Amazon’s workplace culture in The New York Times described Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the helm of a “bruising workplace” that is experimenting in “how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

The Times said many Amazon employees work long hours, including weekends, are often reduced to tears at their desks, endure callous management practices, and are expected to always put work first, even if it means returning to the office the day after suffering a miscarriage.

“A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a ‘performance improvement plan’ — Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’ — because ‘difficulties’ in her ‘personal life’ had interfered with fulfilling her work goals,” the Times said.

Of course, Bezos and some Amazon workers – both former and current – were quick to defend the e-commerce giant.

Bezos sent out a staff email after the Times’ expose hit newsstands, saying he didn’t recognize the company described in the Amazon story. He went on to urge Amazon employees to report any negative experiences like those described in the Times to the Amazon HR department or directly to him. Bezos wrote:

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.

Fortune contributor Jeffrey Pfeffer said there are several lessons to be learned here, including these three take-aways:

  • The people we admire aren’t always that admirable. Bezos was named the best-performing CEO in the world in 2014 by the Harvard Business Review. Bezos and Amazon have also won several other honors for best companies and leading innovators. As Pfeffer writes, “dimensions of leader and company performance are poorly correlated.”
  • Employee well-being isn’t as important as economic performance. In other words, the almighty dollar always comes out on top. “This current workplace situation implies the need for a broad movement in our communities and society to make human well-being important,” Pfeffer writes. “… employees’ lives matter little in the unrelenting drive for large market capitalizations and competitive dominance. Everyone is dispensable, and their well-being a luxury, except for those at the very top.”
  • We may have ourselves to blame. “Having chosen to join Amazon, employees have two alternatives if confronted with a demanding, unpleasant environment: rationalize their working conditions as not being that bad or even desirable, or admit to having made a mistake,” Pfeffer said. It’s more likely that people will change their attitudes about the working conditions, he explained. Also, there is a perception that employees who are hired and continue to work at Amazon are special, which feeds an individual’s sense of self and provides incentives to stay.

What do you think about the Times’ story on the Amazon workplace? Have you ever worked for a cutthroat company? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

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