Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Wikipedia

Has Amazon's reputation just taken a blow?

Revelations about working conditions in Amazon's offices prompts boss Jeff Bezos to defend the company personally.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Sep 2015

Amazon took a slap to the face over the weekend, when a New York Times article laid bare some of the secrets of its allegedly ‘bruising’ workplace. If there was anyone left who thought Amazon was a doe-eyed startup with a penchant for brightly coloured bean bags and office trampolines, they must have been shocked.

Having spoken to over a hundred ex-Amazonians, the NYT painted a picture of a firm ‘where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves’, where workers are encouraged to tear apart each other’s ideas in brutal meetings or stab colleagues in the back with anonymous reviews, and where the bottom-ranked (yes, they are all ranked) employees are sacked in a kind of ritual, annual cull.  

Perhaps surprisingly, this vision of an HR department’s nightmare made flesh drew a direct and prompt response from Amazon’s CEO and founder himself, Jeff Bezos.

Bezos disowned the ‘shockingly callous management practices’ in the article, and said that description didn’t match the Amazon he knew.

‘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,’ he said. ‘But hopefully you don’t recognise the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way’.

Anyone who’s actually heard Bezos’ laughter might think twice about wanting to work in a place reverberating with the sound of it, but perhaps that’s by the by.

Are the allegations true? It’s hard to say. A current employee, Nick Ciubotariu, hit back on LinkedIn, saying that even if it had been like that in the old days – ‘and it most likely was’ – it simply isn’t like that now – no culling, no office politics by anonymous review, no weekly maulings in team meetings.

It’s true that the article was mostly built on interviews with ex-employees, who are by definition more likely than current employees to have fundamental differences with Amazon’s way of doing things. But, on the other hand, it’s also true that current employees aren’t exactly likely to go on the record against it.

However severe it really is, the danger of reputational damage was sufficient for Bezos himself get involved. He’s concerned that, in a war for talent, Amazon will lose out if people think its head office is located in the seventh circle of hell, not Seattle.

Having such a reputation would also only serve to create or sustain such a culture, because only the most warlike employees would want to work there, and probably for more cash than they’d want at Google or Microsoft.

Unfortunately for Bezos, Amazon already has that reputation, whether justifiably or not. Stories like this are setbacks on a long road to rebranding Amazon as a happier company to work for. But it’s perhaps not as long a road as it might seem.

Amazon isn’t trying to be Facebook, after all. Its culture is different – harsher – for a reason.  On the one hand it’s a data-driven tech giant that’s constantly trying to ‘invent the future’, but on the other it’s a retailer with wafer thin margins and a world domination complex. Amazon is like Google and Wal-Mart’s love child, and as such it’s never going to be as cuddly as the other tech firms. All it really has to do is convince potential workers that it’s not as bad as they’d heard.

What Bezos won’t be concerned about is consumers turning against Amazon in some form of moral protest. The firm’s vast warehouses are already known for their tough conditions and zero hour contracts (as MT editor Matthew Gwyther points out) – if that hasn’t turned people away, the plight of some overworked (and highly remunerated) software engineers is unlikely to sway a deal-hungry public.

The revelations may have reinforced negative views on Amazon as place to work for a time, but they’re unlikely to slow its journey to global retail supremacy.

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