Amazon's Culture: Big River, Big Problems

Author: Steve Bloom

Recently, The New York Times published an article entitled “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas In a Bruising Culture.” The article describes a Darwinian employment culture at Amazon in which not the strong survive, but the most ruthless and ambitious.

In sharp contrast to other high-tech leaders like Google, Netflix and LinkedIn who place a high value on employee well-being, the article describes a culture marked by intense pressure to work long hours, sacrifice personal life priorities and otherwise succeed regardless of the consequences. For example, the article recounts several situations where employees had personal or family health issues and were placed on performance improvement plans intended to get them refocused on their jobs.

No Surprise: Low Well-Being = Low Tenure
According to the article, Amazon’s average employee tenure is less than one year -- putting it among the lowest in the Fortune 500. Yet this high turnover rate and the “bruising" culture appear to be both expected and acceptable to Amazon executives. Among other things, they see it as a way to cull the less committed employees.

There is some evidence to suggest that Amazon has difficulty filling enough positions. For example, in Seattle alone the company has 4,500 job openings. Some of these are likely a result of the company’s growth, but some appear to be a result of the burn and churn culture that causes a steady stream of employee departures.

Ruthless Organizations...Nothing New
Hyper-intense, ruthless cultures aren't new to the corporate landscape. Such work environments may be rare on the West Coast, but many U.S. firms have earned similar reputations over the years.

Regardless of Amazon’s peculiar ambitions regarding corporate culture, three truths remain:

  1. Most people want to work in an engaging, collegial environment in which the company has at least some level of concern for their professional and personal well-being.
  2. According to a Wharton School study, companies listed in Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work for in America generate 2.3% to 3.8% higher stock returns per year than their peers.
  3. We’ve met the enemy and they are us. In our quest for ever-cheaper, ever-more-plentiful goods and services, something usually gives. Cheap stuff often — perhaps usually — spells some combination of poor quality, exploited employees and/or abused planet.

Consumerism & C0-Dependency
There will always be employees who are drawn to companies like Amazon, not so much for the bruising culture but for other factors such as the allure of wealth from stock options. We shouldn’t be concerned about the small percentage of folks who make an attempt at these organizations — short-lived as many of these attempts are. For those workers who have a choice, most will opt for enlightened organizations with cultures that foster both financial success and employee well-being.

Instead, we should be concerned about what enables cultures like Amazon. We have to examine the co-dependent relationship that allows organizations to succeed in spite of a seeming lack of concern for people and/or planet.

How badly do you want that third pair of trendy, yet easy-on-the-wallet athletic shoes? Do you want them badly enough to allow children to be exploited for cheap labor? Or do you just want them badly enough to simply turn a blind eye? Sometimes, the questions you don’t ask are the real killers.

Yep, Ignorance Really is Bliss
Many of us are happy to buy our chocolate, shoes and toilet paper in blissful ignorance of how it was made and what impact it had on people and planet — even if we know this is a dangerous game of roulette. Indeed, many scientists believe we are on the edge of a self-induced environmental disaster, but we still go on buying and consuming as if tomorrow will never come.

The problem isn’t Amazon; it’s the consumers who have made this organization successful. We have made the bruising culture seem like it works, and as long as we buy more stuff, perhaps it does.