The New York Times published a scathing piece over the weekend portraying Amazon, the world's largest retailer, as a brutal employer that puts innovation and company performance above the well-being of its people. Authors Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld paint a picture of long and late workdays (and nights), "unreasonably high" standards, and colleagues sending secret feedback to bosses that equates to career sabotage.
They go on to claim that "some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages, and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover."
Here are a few quotes from the over 100 interviews the authors conducted with current and former employees:
"Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."
--Bo Olson, worked in books marketing
"I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from."
--Dina Vaccari, worked on projects from corporate gift cards to sales of scientific supplies, 2008 to 2014
"I would see people practically combust."
--Liz Pearce, worked on Amazon's wedding registry
Come on. Is it really that bad? Or is this a case of biased, tabloid journalism?
Just one day later, current Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu was motivated to write a dissenting opinion on LinkedIn. (It quickly became the weekend's most widely read article on Pulse, LinkedIn's news aggregator.)
Ciubotariu writes: "This particular article, has so many inaccuracies (some clearly deliberate), that, as an Amazonian, and a proud one at that, I feel compelled to respond."
Ciubotariu's post goes on to give a paragraph by paragraph rebuttal to the authors’ claims. It has received tons of comments in support, including some from other current and past Amazon employees. (You can read his post in full here.)
So, whom should you believe? I'm sure there is truth in both points of view. In Amazon's defense, I’ve seen firsthand how biased even "reputable" journalism can be. There are certainly (at least) two sides to every story. Having never worked for Amazon or studied them personally, I'm not qualified to pass judgment.
But in reading Ciubotariu's piece, and some of the comments from Amazon employees supporting him, I do have questions. Some of their arguments just aren't convincing, and show subtle signs as to what type of culture we're dealing with.
For example, in responding to Kantor and Streitfeld's claim that Amazon is "conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers," Ciubotariu retorts:
"There is no 'little-known experiment'. That's just silly. No one at Amazon has time for this, least of all Jeff Bezos. We've got our hands full with reinventing the world." (Italics mine.)
Come on, Nick. I can't say if there's an experiment or not. But can you? You tell us you’ve been with Amazon for only 18 months, yet you expect us to believe that you know of every project going on at a company with a headcount topping 150,000? And can we really count e-commerce among the world's most complex and critical problems?
Ciubotariu goes on:
"Amazon is, without question, the most innovative technology company in the world. The hardest problems in technology, bar none, are solved at Amazon.... Our sheer size and complexity dwarfs everyone else, and not everyone is qualified to work here, or will rise to the challenge. But that doesn't mean we're Draconian or evil. Not everyone gets into Harvard, either, or graduates from there. Same principles apply."
I'm a fan of what Amazon offers me as a consumer, and no doubt some extremely intelligent people have worked very hard to produce that. But Ciubotariu's remarks, as well as some comments left by other Amazon employees under his post, slowly paint a picture of an elitist, pompous culture. One where I can imagine some of those dreadful experiences reported by Kantor and Streitfeld taking place.
As I said, I can't say what it's like to work at Amazon. There’s definitely bias, and perhaps even unfairness, in the Times article. But if I were Jeff Bezos, I'd look past all of that. I'd view this article in the same way Amazon claims to look at their internal feedback--as a foundation for discussion. A catalyst to see if the company has somehow become blind to major problems within, in the same way many major corporations have before them. But that long, hard look has to start with Bezos.
Maybe it will. As the Amazon chief stated at a conference last year:
"My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture."