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Jeff Bezos and Amazon Employees Join Debate Over Its Culture
For 20 years, Amazon has reveled in its toughness. “Work hard” are the first two words of a company motto. An oft-repeated line from Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive, calls the company culture “friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll settle for intense.”
That uncompromising attitude played a large role in building a retail powerhouse with a market capitalization of $250 billion. But now Amazon is taking issue with a depiction that its culture is all-toughness-all-the-time for many of its workers, and says it wants to tamp down on excesses that have left many bruised employees in its wake.
Mr. Bezos, responding to an article that was published by The New York Times over the weekend about Amazon’s hard-hitting management style, deplored what he called its portrait of “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard” and said, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”
He told workers: “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”
The article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” told of workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises who said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover in a company that could not slow down.
In a letter to employees, Mr. Bezos said Amazon would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” described in the article. He urged any employees who knew of “stories like those reported” to contact him directly.
“Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero,” Mr. Bezos said.
Amazon declined a request to interview Mr. Bezos for the original article, but made several executives available. Over all, The Times interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, including many who spoke on the record and some who requested anonymity because they had signed agreements saying they would not speak to the press.
Amazon spokesmen declined to comment further on Monday. Jay Carney, Amazon’s chief spokesman, appeared on “CBS This Morning” to defend the company, which is based in Seattle. “This is an incredibly compelling place to work,” he said.
Mr. Bezos urged his 180,000 employees to give The Times article “a careful read” but said it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”
He also suggested reading a piece on LinkedIn by an Amazon engineer, Nick Ciubotariu, which was circulated by Amazon’s public relations department after The Times article was published. Mr. Ciubotariu describes strengths of the workplace, including focus on customers and innovation. He also wrote that “no one” was encouraged to “toil long and late,” and dismissed the concerns expressed by many women at the company, which does not include any women on its top leadership team.
His points contradicted the accounts of many former and current colleagues, and some of his assertions were incorrect, including a statement that the company does not cull employees on an annual basis. An Amazon spokesman previously confirmed that the company sought to manage out a certain percentage of its work force annually. The number varies from year to year.
Mr. Ciubotariu, who joined Amazon in March 2014, wrote that he never worked a single weekend “when I didn’t want to.” But even he said things used to be different, quoting an unnamed senior executive telling an all-hands meeting, “Amazon used to burn a lot of people into the ground.” Mr. Ciubotariu did not respond to an email requesting an interview.
Until the publication of the article, Amazon’s management practices had been a matter of quiet debate in Seattle. But after the article was published and Mr. Bezos’s letter was released, current and former Amazonians wrote on social media, technology websites and The Times website to compare experiences and debate the strengths and weaknesses of the culture. Some defended the culture as highly demanding but humane, while others described feeling pummeled by unrelenting demands, over-the-top competition, and a feeling they could never meet the standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.”
“I didn’t see a whole lot of crying at desks. But I did see a lot of crying in bathrooms,” wrote Lisa Moffeit, who now works for Rhapsody, the music service.
Courtney Hartman, a current Amazon employee who has worked at the company for six years, wrote in an online comment for The Times article that she was “surprised to see anyone saying they had no idea what they were signing up for. It was always clear to me.” But she added that she had taken two maternity leaves, been absent for doctor appointments, and dealt with child care emergencies without negative career consequences.
Some current Amazon employees said their experiences matched the most upbeat ones described in the original article. “I’ve never seen someone cry at their desk,” said an engineer who declined to be named, but whose identity was verified by The Times.
Mr. Ciubotariu’s LinkedIn article spurred a mini-debate of its own, with some former colleagues disagreeing with his depiction of a polite, respectful, Foosball-playing workplace.
“Amazon was the most toxic work environment I have ever seen,” wrote Eric Moore, the chief technical officer of cloud and automation at Hewlett-Packard Software Americas.
“I would start crying on Sunday nights and my husband devoted countless hours to listening to my stories about my work days,” said Angela Galper, a former database administrator for Amazon Web Services.
Some Amazon veterans debated exactly what Mr. Bezos meant in his message, and whether he would truly commit to sanding some edges off the company’s culture, especially with the stock at an all-time high.
While Mr. Bezos in his note urged employees to speak up about problems, “How do you possibly convey to your manager the intolerable nature of your working condition when your manager is the one who is telling you, point-blank, that the impossible hours are simply what’s expected?” one former Amazon employee asked in an email.
The company’s description of its leadership principles, or its guidelines for behavior, include instructions to be “vocally self-critical,” and some veterans wondered if the company would listen to the employees who had felt bruised.
“It’s hard for me to read this article and not come away with the feeling that something is very wrong, and there’s a lot of needless burnout and hurt feelings that come from bad elements of company culture,” Mehal Shah, until recently an Amazon engineer, wrote in his own article on LinkedIn. “Did we all forget that being self-critical is a good thing?”