Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has responded to a news report that paints a grim picture of working life at the Internet giant, saying that he doesn’t recognize the “soulless, dystopian workplace” portrayed in the piece.
While the company is no stranger to controversy, what with elaborate tax setups and so-called zero-hour contracts tarnishing the company’s reputation in recent times, a New York Times article from Saturday conveys Amazon as a deeply depressing place to work.
Inside Amazon: Wrestling big ideas in a bruising workplace alleges that the company is running a “little-known experiment” to see how far it can push white-collar workers, with one former employee stating that “nearly every person” they worked with cried at their desk. Throw into the mix tales about employees given poor performance reviews after returning to work from cancer treatment, and a woman who had to go on a business trip shortly after she miscarried twins, and it’s clear why Bezos is on the defensive, electing to publicize the email he sent to Amazon staff today. The accusations contained within the NYT piece are serious, and the conduct, if true, would be reprehensible.
Bezos’ memo isn’t the first public rebuttal of the New York Times’ article, however. Yesterday, Nick Ciubotariu, head of Infrastructure Development at Amazon for little more than a year, penned an in-depth piece that addressed the Times’ report point-by-point. The general gist of Ciubotariu’s take is that most of the details in the NYT report are either no-longer true, are half-truths, or are downright false.
Bezos doesn’t go into as much detail, and he isn’t nearly as scathing about the Times’ report as Ciubotariu was. But he does say that the Amazon in the article isn’t “the Amazon I know,” before encouraging employees to report any similar experiences to HR, or to Bezos directly.
When assessing the contents of the New York Times’ report against the two subsequent rebuttals, it’s difficult to come to a definitive conclusion about what to believe. On the one hand, it is obviously in Amazon’s interests to pour cold water on the claims — no company wants to be associated with those kinds of accusations. But on the other hand, it’s difficult to see how a company could, as Bezos points out, “thrive” if its culture really was as the New York Times’ would have readers believe.
The truth is more likely somewhere in between. As a company with almost 160,000 employees around the world, spanning e-commerce, cloud computing, logistics, and more, it would perhaps be more surprising if there weren’t a few horrible situations, such as those described by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld in their Times’ article. Much probably depends on what department you work in, who your manager is, and your seniority.
That said, there is a tacit acknowledgement that the Amazon described in the article “may have existed, in the past,” according to Ciubotariu. “Certainly, I’ve heard others refer to ‘how things used to be’ but it is definitely not the Amazon of today.”
Amazon has provided VentureBeat with Jeff Bezos’ full memo to staff, which you can read here:
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:
I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:
Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. 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. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.
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.