Silicon Valley wasted no time in reacting to a New York Times article on what it’s like to work at Amazon. The story featured depictions of people pushed to extremes, staff crying at desks and “redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”
The Seattle-based online retailer was described as a data-driven workplace where metrics are used to determine if employees measure up. Turnover is high. Low performers are fired. The rewards can be great, but the story quoted many employees expressing doubts about how Amazon treats its workers.
“I would see people practically combust,” a former Amazon project manager said in describing the pressure to deliver results.
The story hit a nerve. And there seemed to be plenty of head-shaking among readers. Eighty-plus hours a week? Workers told to secretly send feedback to each other’s bosses?
To some, the story read like a depressing preview of the workplace of the future, where technology and the push for greater efficiency strain what people are capable of doing.
But, in a perhaps telling divide between those who work in tech and those outside of it, Silicon Valley seemed a bit underwhelmed by it all.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent out a company-wide memo to say the story “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”
Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, took aim at what he called “isolated anecdotes.”
“It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either,” Bezos wrote.
Bezos also asked Amazon employees to contact him or human resources if they knew of any incidents like those described in the article.
“Even if it’s rare or isolated,” Bezos wrote, “our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”
One of those anecdotes described a woman who had just had a stillborn child and was put on a performance improvement plan, described as code for “you’re in danger of being fired.”
The article continued: “The mother of the stillborn child soon left Amazon. ‘I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life,’ the woman recalled via email, only to be told her performance would be monitored ‘to make sure my focus stayed on my job.’”
In another example, Michelle Willamson, 41, who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said she was told by her boss that raising children would likely hurt her career because of the long hours required. Her boss told The New York Times that he had told Willamson to find a less demanding job at Amazon.
After the article appeared, an Amazon engineer named Nick Ciubotariu took to Linkedin to defend his employer. His lengthy response was widely passed around online. He hit upon how much employees like him appreciate Amazon’s culture.
“Would you not want to work for a company that recognizes talent based on merit, not politics and bureaucracy?” Ciubotariu wrote.
And over at Forbes, writer George Anders, who authored a 2012 cover story about Amazon, noted that there was more to at least one anecdote mentioned in the New York Times story.
The article described how Bezos, at age 10, tried to get his grandmother to stop smoking by calculating the cost of each puff on her lifespan. “You’ve taken nine years of your life!” he told her. And she burst into tears.
Bezos had told the story during a 2010 Princeton graduation speech. The article noted it as an early example of Bezos’ data-driven management.
But, Anders said, there was more to that one story — and it had been mentioned by Bezos in his speech.
After young Bezos made his grandmother cry, his grandfather ushered him aside for a private talk.
“Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever,” his grandfather told him.
That encounter has haunted Bezos for a long time. At the close of his Princeton talk, Bezos posed a series of rhetorical questions to graduates, including: “Will you bluff it out when you’re wrong, or will you apologize?” and “Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?”
By cutting the anecdote short, Anders said, the New York Times made Bezos look like an “emotionless cyborg” rather than a relentless doer who periodically wrestled with his conscience.
At the same time, Anders thought the article captured “something fundamentally true about the Seattle company’s breakneck pace.”