The New York Times was too quick to rush to judge Amazon's corporate culture, says career coach Marie McIntyre.
On a recent trip, a fellow traveler asked if I always felt afraid living in Atlanta. Since this gentleman had never visited a U.S. city, his belief was that encountering gun-toting criminals might be a daily occurrence. As a longtime resident, I assured him this was not the case.
I was reminded of this exchange when I read the scathing New York Times article about Amazon 's corporate culture.
After many years in management and human resources, I have a slightly different take on the reporters' observations about Amazon. So here are my reactions to their article.
The Times article devotes paragraph after paragraph to "Amazon's singular way of working," yet most of the examples they cite are widespread in the business world. Terms like "ownership," "mission," "dive deep," "bias for action," "think big," and "customer obsession" are highlighted by the authors as though they are somehow unusual, even though they've been around for decades.
Business practices like performance ranking, confidentiality agreements, business reviews, competitive internal projects and data-based decision-making are hardly exclusive to Amazon. Perhaps most amusing is the description of the Performance Improvement Plan as "Amazon code for 'you're in danger of being fired.'" I hate to tell the reporters, but that "code" is used by almost every large company in the country.
This is not to say that all these practices are without fault — but there is nothing unique about them. And Amazon's Leadership Principles are actually sound operational guidelines.
All managers and recruiters know that "cultural fit" is a key to successful hiring. The applicant who happily settles in at Microsoft may quickly become disgruntled at a 50-person start-up — and vice versa. Someone who enjoys the non-profit world may be miserable in business. Organizational size, structure, expectations, and mission can all affect job satisfaction.
Having worked with many technology companies, I know first-hand that the culture is not for everyone. As a human-resources director, I often told applicants that if they could not handle frequent change or a rapid pace, they would not be happy in our company. I encouraged them to talk with employees and learn about our environment. After assessing the landscape, some made an informed decision to self-select out.
Amazon apparently takes a similar approach, as evidenced by a recruiting video quoted in the Times article: "You either fit here or you don't. You love it or you don't. There is no middle ground."
About a year ago, a new Amazon hire contacted me for some personal career coaching. "I was excited about the opportunity at first," she said. "But these people work ridiculous hours. And they are really rude." Another way of stating this, of course, would be "I prefer to work a 40-hour week and have people care about my feelings."
In psychology, there is a field of study called "attribution theory," which looks at how we assign causality. Simply put, when something good happens to us – an award, a promotion – we tend to attribute that result to our own amazing qualities. But when the reverse occurs – a project fails, we lose a job – we quickly blame factors outside ourselves.
Unsuccessful or unhappy employees almost always attribute the problem to their company, boss, or colleagues, and they eagerly share these perceptions with anyone who will listen. So it is hardly surprising that two reporters found ex-Amazonians who were ready to complain. But like my coaching client, many of them had probably just landed in the wrong place.
The examples of Amazon managers disciplining employees with cancer or sending women on business trips after a miscarriage are appalling and inexcusable. However, as someone who writes a workplace advice column, I can assure you that such egregious actions are not unique to Amazon. Every week, I find emails in my inbox describing similar events.
In a company with over 100,000 employees, it is statistically unlikely that every manager will be competent, caring, and compassionate and statistically probable that anyone looking for horror stories can find them. But I feel fairly certain that many heartwarming examples could also be found of Amazon managers who made every effort to assist employees with difficult personal or family situations.
I once worked for a CEO who complained about feeling out of control. This was rather amusing to the rest of us, since from our perspective, he controlled pretty much everything.
What he meant, though, was that he could not guarantee that his intentions for the business would be accurately interpreted and carried out. His passion for customer service had to flow through a lot of layers before reaching those who actually served the customers. Stories about customer mistreatment drove him absolutely nuts.
Given his rapid response to the Times article, Jeff Bezos apparently shares this frustration. He made it quite clear that this is not the Amazon he knows or envisions, and he invited employees to email him directly about any inappropriate management behavior. So kudos to you, Jeff.