If you were following the technology press last Summer, you would have heard about an article that appeared in the New York Times concerning Amazon’s work culture at headquarters. The article painted Amazon as an insensitive, 24×7 workplace where people stomp on each others ideas and sabotage each other behind their backs. Responding to the article, Amazon’s head of corporate affairs, Jay Carney, wrote a stunning rebuttal in which he questioned the credibility of the sources named in the original article, and questioned the journalists competence. It’s particularly ironic that a company accused of encouraging employees to tear into each others ideas, would react to an article by trying to tear it apart.
The back and forth continued. Dean Banquet, Executive Editor at the New York Times, then defended journalistic process and pointed out that many Amazon employees commenteing on the article echoed the article. Amazon CEO, Jeff Bezos, also stepped in and wrote an internal memo telling Amazon employees that he didn’t recognize the Amazon portrayed in the article. A public he-said, she-said debate is the stuff of pop culture, not executives at Fortune 1000 companies.
I live in Seattle. I know a lot of past and present Amazon employees. I’m not surprised Jeff Bezos doesn’t recognize the Amazon described in the story. He is, after all, the most senior person in the company who spends much of his time working with similarly senior people whose motivations, rewards and work days are very different to the contributors to the article. When you talk to Amazon employees about the article, they have mixed feelings. They recognize much of the article as truth, but they also feel that it is unfair and cherry picked some extreme examples. A lot of the article centered around Amazon’s leadership principles which Amazon say
“Amazonians use them, every day, whether they’re discussing ideas for new projects, deciding on the best solution for a customer’s problem, or interviewing candidates.”.
If you talk to Amazon employee, they echo that. The leadership principles get brought up a lot: during meetings, as part of discussions and guides for making decisions. I want to commend Amazon on this. Many companies write their values on the wall and put them in presentations, but are inconsistent in applying and using them.
I think the New York Times article has done Amazon a favor in highlighting the leadership principles and giving an account of Amazon work culture. While it is true that Amazon is not a great place to work for everybody. It is a great place to work for some people. Now, if someone chooses to work at Amazon they are giving their informed consent to participate in the work culture. Let me explain what I mean.
When I hire people, I spend a lot of time trying to understand their values and how they might fit or clash with our values. I ask myself, will they thrive getting work done the way we get work done? If we’re a team that talks a lot before doing, I need to discover if this person prefers action-first because our talk-culture will drive them mad. People sometimes think they can adapt to a new culture. Humans don’t change their behaviors / values / preferences very easily, and certainly not quickly. Working in an environment where you have to operate in an unnatural way takes emotional energy. If you hire candidates who are compatible with your culture they will thrive and that’s good for you and them. I work hard to find people who will thrive in the teams I build. Sometimes I’ve get it right and sometimes I get it wrong. I’m told that Amazon spend much of their interview process probing people around those leadership principles.
I believe that fit is a better long term indicator of success than skills or experience. Assessing fit isn’t the sole responsibility of employers. Candidates have to educate themselves about a potential new employers culture and values and see if they match their own. I don’t see many candidates doing this. The New York Times article painted a picture of a difficult workplace from the perspective of people who didn’t fit. The size of Amazon and the rate that they’re hiring means they will hire more people who won’t thrive at Amazon, despite Amazon’s best attempt to find people who fit. As a potential employee you can now make an informed decision about whether you will thrive in Amazon culture. Thanks to the New York Times drawing attention to the leadership principles and the overall culture, you have a very good account of the what it might be like to work at Amazon. Remember, no amount of money – and Amazon pay pretty well – can make up for the fact that you’re miserable, stressed or both.