A scathing new report from The New York Times describes Amazon’s workplace as a “brutal” environment where back-stabbing is encouraged, employees spend hours working nights and weekends, and some workers suffering from illnesses have been pushed out of their jobs.
The shocking portrayal has some customers of the world’s largest e-retailer wondering whether they still want to shop there. But mostly, the response to the story seems to be similar to the headline on this Inc.com story: “Working at Amazon is hell. So what?”
Even so, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos lost little time in disputing the Times report that revealed:
▪ When one employee, who had received great work reviews for years, cut back working on nights and weekends to take care of her father dying from cancer, her Amazon boss told her that was “a problem.” She took unpaid leave and never returned.
▪ Extreme workloads have included marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, and criticism from bosses when they couldn’t reach employees on vacation.
▪ An employee who had breast cancer was put on a “performance improvement plan” – described as Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” – because “difficulties” in her “personal life” were interfering with her work.
▪ Another woman who miscarried twins went on a business trip the day after surgery because her boss told her that “I’m sorry, the work is still going to need to get done.”
▪ Workers are expected to be frugal, which includes paying for work cell phones and travel expenses themselves.
Bezos had declined to speak to the Times for the story – “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace” – which is based on interviews with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees.
But late Sunday he told the newspaper that he didn’t recognize the company described in its report and that his company would not tolerate the “shockingly callous management practices” depicted.
He said the same thing to his 180,000 employees in an email sent over the weekend, according to Geekwire.com.
Bezos encouraged workers to read the Times story. “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” he wrote. “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero ...
“The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either ...
“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.”
Bezos and other Amazon executives weren’t the only ones circling the wagons on Monday. Current Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu posted a rebuttal to the Times story on LinkedIn, calling it “blatantly incorrect” and noting that no one with the company told him to respond to the article.
The details of the Amazon expose call to mind Cerner CEO Neal Patterson’s infamous “tick tock” memo in 2001 that threatened a 5 percent staff reduction and the installation of time clocks because some employees in North Kansas City weren’t working hard enough.
Cerner stock dropped nearly 20 percent in two days after the memo became public.
“We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our KC-based EMPLOYEES. The parking lot is sparsely used at 8 a.m.; likewise at 5 p.m.,” Patterson wrote.
“As managers – you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or YOU do not CARE.
“The pizza man should show up at 7:30 p.m. to feed the starving teams working late. The lot should be half-full on Saturday mornings ... You have two weeks. Tick, tock.”
Patterson later apologized to employees for his “direct language” but not necessarily for the message.
Motherboard added fuel to the Times story with a column by a former Amazon employee who wrote about how his male colleagues there did work in the bathrooms.
“I come from a background where a bathroom is a place where you do a certain kind of business, in silence, and you leave. At Amazon, the men’s room is an extension of the office. People chitchat about work in the bathroom, as if it is just another meeting room where you can (pee) everywhere,” he writes.
“The most horrifying moment of my employment at Amazon was the time I was using the toilet and a coworker began talking from the stall next to me. He asked me why I had not responded to his very pressing email. I closed my eyes and pretended this wasn’t happening ...
“I regularly saw people bring their laptops into the bathroom, where they would sit on the toilet and write code.”
So employees have it tough at Amazon. Some people don’t see what the fuss is all about.
A tweet from Fortune magazine – which notes that it’s “clearly why Amazon doesn’t make Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list – even seemed to mock the detail that Amazon employees have been seen crying at their desks.
“The New York Times just published an exposé of how difficult life is at Amazon. I suppose their goal was to make us feel bad for their poor employees,” writes Suzanne Lucas for Inc.
“Now, to be clear, I’m happy to criticize Amazon when they deserve to be criticized – I completely disagree with their decision to not pay their employees during security checks – even though the Supreme Court agreed with them. I just don’t have a problem with a company that demands a lot from their employees.
“Amazon corporate employees work long hours, don’t get fancy benefits and free lunches, and are expected to dedicate their souls to the company. It’s so awful that Amazon kidnaps people off the street and forces them to work for them. I mean, why haven’t police or the FBI broken down Amazon’s doors and freed these poor people?
“Oh, I get it, because these people work there voluntarily. They work there because the paychecks they receive are worth the time and effort they have to put into the job. If it wasn’t worth it to them, they would put in their two weeks notice and quit. They would go get different jobs. If enough people left, Amazon would either change their culture or go broke. Neither appears to be happening.”
In the past, shoppers have been concerned enough about the working conditions at Amazon that they’ve boycotted the company. In fact, throughout its history, Amazon has been the target of several boycott attempts over alleged unfair business practices and its treatment of employees.
One of the largest boycotts came in 2011 after reports surfaced of worker conditions at Amazon warehouses and shipping centers across the country. Workers at one Pennsylvania warehouse were found to working in sweatshop-like conditions. More than 12,000 shoppers signed a petition pledging not to use Amazon for the Christmas holidays.
But that same outcry is missing today. A lone voice of concern belongs to Stuart Heritage, a columnist for The Guardian, who writes that though he will “miss the convenience of buying stuff on my laptop, in my underpants,” the working conditions spelled out in the Times story might be the final straw for him as an Amazon customer.
“A company that doesn’t respect its own workers doesn’t deserve my money,” Heritage writes.
“And I’m certain that I’m not alone here, given Jeff Bezos’s fast and unusually public rebuttal of the piece ...
“Sure, I’m certain that I’ll slip from time to time – because, again, I really do love parcels – but this feels like a line in the sand. I need to think long and hard before I buy anything from Amazon again.”