By now, you've probably read the New York Times article that shows how Amazon is a horrible place to work where people get paid a lot of money to be mean to one another and sell you all the stuff you could ever not want at bargain-basement prices (don't forget the free shipping!).

If you haven't read it, you've pretended to read it, because that appears to be all anyone on Twitter is talking about. Well, that and Donald Trump. (Wait--are we still talking about him?)

In case you're one of the handful of people who may or may not have read it, or Jeff Bezos's response, or the response by a current Amazon employee, here's the 50 cent summary:

The New York Times published a huge article (nearly 6,000 words) about the work culture at Amazon.

  • In brief, the culture was described as highly competitive, backbiting, and perfectionist. (My words.)
  • Long hours are expected and dissent is admired, particularly if the dissent is anonymous.
  • You'd better not have a baby or suffer from a serious illness.
  • There apparently is crying at Amazon.

This article more or less tears apart all the beliefs we have about Silicon Valley (though, to be fair, Amazon is based in Seattle and not Palo Alto) and the tech industry today.

Aren't tech companies supposed to have Ping-Pong tables, full beer fridges, and free gourmet lunches?

Aren't tech companies supposed to accept all input, where no one is wrong and things move quickly and everyone wears jeans and likes the same movies?

Look. I don't know what it's like to work at Amazon. I haven't worked there. But I have worked at companies that were part of huge, publicly traded conglomerates. Every newsroom I was ever in was filled with wonderful people and with backstabbers. We constantly fought for our stories against other reporters and to get our editors to give us the thumbs up.

When we didn't cry, we got so mad we smashed phones. We yelled at each other so loudly the walls shook (to be fair, the walls were really thin). Those were good days.

I'm not saying any of that is right. I'm not saying I didn't wish things had been different at various times in various newsrooms. But every journalist I know has stories. And many people I know in other industries have stories--from small companies and large.

My real issue with the article is that this is not new, nor is it particular to Amazon, and it is at least partly an issue of work style.

Some people are most productive when there is always a looming deadline and the powers that be are pushing for you to do the best work (and find your way over or around the wall when you hit it). Even the special Silicon Valley companies that offer catered lunches aren't doing that to be all nice and friendly--good food in-house, unlimited vacation time, and Ping-Pong tables all encourage people to spend more time at work. If you're at work, you're going to spend more time working, probably.

Unlimited vacation time encourages people to spend more time at work? Some argue that--saying that when there's no actual minimum, many employees err on the side of taking less time off than they might if there were only three weeks allowed.

There definitely were red flags raised in the piece--the women who reported having been penalized for time she had to take off to deal with serious health issues, for example. No one's denying that. If even one of those stories is 100 percent true, that's one story too many.

But in reading, I had the nagging feeling that Amazon was not unique in any of this, but so many seem to be acting as if this is so at odds with how companies are today. I can't tell you how many potential jobs I've steered away from after friends have warned me off because of the toxic culture--at startups and large companies alike.

In fact, I'm starting to see a lot of comments on Twitter from people saying the same--"That sounded like this one job I had once at this other place."

I'm not saying work should be thankless. I'm not saying work should be soul-sucking. If you're lucky, work will be fulfilling. If you're unlucky, work will give you money to pay your bills. There is a value in that.

That annual subscription to Amazon Prime won't pay for itself, you know.

Published on: Aug 17, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.