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Sandy Says: Amazon's Corporate Culture: No Middle Ground

Sept. 14, 2015
A recent article in the New York Times about online retail giant Amazon detailed how the corporate philosophy encourages backstabbing and public humiliation among its white collar workers, and describes a corporate culture that recruiters bluntly tell prospective employees they either will love or hate.

Every day, people around the world log on to, where millions of products are just a seductive "One Click" away.

When my dogs ate my favorite pair of boots a few days ago, I "Googled" the boots and found only two pairs available in my size in the entire world … on Amazon/UK. I ordered them immediately.

I didn't stop to think how Amazon treats its workers, even though I know that OSHA has cited the company for safety violations in its warehouses and worker advocates have criticized Amazon's working conditions. I didn't stop to ponder if its white-collar workers fared any better than the warehouse workers. I WANTED THOSE BOOTS!

On Aug. 15, millions of Americans discovered what it's like to work for a driven, innovative company like Amazon. If you believe what a number of former Amazon employees have to say in the New York Times' article, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace," working at Amazon kind of sucks, but maybe in a good way.

The article focuses on white collar workers, who are encouraged to criticize each other's ideas in meetings, instructed how to send secret messages to co-workers' supervisors that detail performance issues (the Anytime Feedback Tool) and berated by text message if they don't respond to emails sent after midnight.

One employee told the New York Times, "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk." He lasted less than two years at Amazon. And he's not alone. The median tenure at Amazon is one year; only the driven and obsessed survive.

Former Amazon executive John Rossman calls it "the greatest place I hate to work." He even published a book about his experiences with the company titled, "The Amazon Way."

Ex-employees – and there is a never-ending stream of them – told the New York Times that what they learned at Amazon has served them well with new employers, while others have become entrepreneurs and have started their own, successful companies. The corporate picture painted in the article is one of ruthless brilliance and innovation, with no tolerance for whining or failure.

The corporate philosophy at Amazon based on 14 leadership principles is not unlike that of many companies, though the execution is different. Some of these principles include:

customer obsession; ownership ("Leaders are owners. They think long term and don't sacrifice long-term value for short-term results… They never say 'that's not my job.'");
 invent and simplify; think big; bias for action ("Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking."); frugality; have backbone, disagree and commit ("Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious... Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly."); and deliver results.

Employees are expected to live and die (metaphorically speaking) by these principles. Employee reviews can be ulcer and/or vomit inducing, with employees berated for unfulfilled goals and a lack of initiative before being told they've been promoted. As some Amazon employees boast: "Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves."

But what most of the current and former employees interviewed said is that while extraordinarily challenging, working for Amazon pushed them farther and harder than they ever thought they could go, the time they spent at the company was some of the most creative and innovative of their professional careers and they learned a lot about themselves in the process.

That CEO Jeff Bezos' business philosophy has made him successful is not in doubt: Amazon has surpassed Wal-Mart as the most-valuable retailer in the United States and Bezos himself is the world's fifth wealthiest person.

So what does all this have to do with safety? Love him or hate him, Bezos leads a company that consistently raises the bar for others to follow. To do that, he needs employee buy-in and support.

"I strongly believe that missionaries make better products. They care more. For a missionary, it's not just about the business. There has to be a business, and the business has to make sense, but that's not why you do it. You do it because you have something meaningful that motivates you," says Bezos.

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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