'Bruising' world of Amazon
An exposé on the retailing giant this week showed a gruelling work culture. Does it point the way to our corporate future?
Published 23/08/2015 | 02:30
The Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos has long had a management maxim that sums up what he expects of employees - "You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can't choose two out of three."
Of all the internet companies, the retailing giant that started out delivering books from a garage has long been known as one of the most demanding.
This week, the New York Times published an article that appeared to show just how gruelling life in Amazon can be.
Jeff Bezos was moved to defend the tech giant after the piece described working conditions that appeared to show a company lacking in empathy, and where white-collar workers are pushed to the absolute limit in the name of efficiency.
One former employee was quoted as saying: "You walk out of a conference room and you'll see a grown man covering his face... Nearly every person I worked with I saw cry at their desk."
One former human resources director described how employees were pushed out in annual culls, a process described as "purposeful Darwinism". It's a matter of the survival of the fittest. Staff suffering personal crises, including miscarriages and cancer, found themselves edged out, rather then given time to recover, the article alleged.
In the modern highly pressurised workplace, staff are used to being contacted by email or phone after hours, or on holiday.
But the article claimed Amazon's "bruising" work culture calls for employees to respond to emails after midnight. If they don't reply promptly, possibly because they are asleep, they may receive a swift follow-up by text message.
Bezos himself this week appeared shocked by the damning description of his company.
In a letter to staff, the billionaire said: "The (New York Times) prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems.
"It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard."
He said the portrayal didn't describe the Amazon he knew, or the caring "Amazonians" he worked with every day. However, he urged staff to report any cases of mistreatment to human resources or to him directly.
Some details of the Amazon report may be disputed, but it will help dispel the notion that dotcom companies which form such a significant part of the Irish economy are necessarily the touch-feely happy-go-lucky places of popular belief - a magically cool world of playrooms, free meals and massages.
In fact, Bezos and Amazon do not even go in for many of the trappings of the typical dotcom, and the meals are not free.
Amazonians are expected to embrace 14 leadership principles, printed on laminated cards (see panel). One of these is frugality: "Accomplish more with less."
While pay at Amazon is considered generous at senior levels, particularly for those with stock options, there is not such a concentration on perks. Bezos once told colleagues he didn't want Amazon to turn into a "country club", like Microsoft in Seattle. If Amazon became like Microsoft, he suggested, "we would die".
According to the New York Times report, staff have their performance measured in a constant stream of assessments.
Bezos likes to work with cold, hard statistics. He once told how, at the age of 10, he encouraged his grandmother to stop smoking. He didn't use emotion to persuade her. Instead he did some calculations, showing that every puff cost her a few minutes.
"You've taken nine years off your life," he told his granny, and she promptly burst into tears.
New recruits have the Bezos leadership principles drummed into them. When they hit the wall under pressure, they are encouraged to "climb the wall". Bizarrely, those who succeed in learning the Amazon leadership rules off by heart are given a virtual award that declares "I'm peculiar".
Employees are apparently encouraged to secretly snitch on colleagues to their bosses, or praise them, under a scheme known as "anytime feedback". Staff are also encouraged to be vocally self-critical. One commentator on CNN.com even likened the approach to that of Chairman Mao.
In fact, this kind of management style is not peculiar to Amazon. Gruelling work conditions with long hours, where staff are given a searing assessment of their performance, would be familiar to staff working in investment banking.
Rowan Manahan, the Dublin human resources consultant, says: "It is common in many big companies in the Anglo-Saxon world, and not just in technology. We are seeing a dehumanisation of the workplace."
Peter Cosgrove, director of CPL Recruitment and the Dublin-based founder of the Future of Work Institute, tells Review: "Staff at Goldman Sachs were recently told that they would not have to work more than 90 hours a week. That shows how long their hours have actually been."
Amazon employs up to 1,700 in Ireland, with half of them at its data service centre in Ballsbridge. Others provide customer support at a centre in Cork.
In America, Amazon delivers groceries and this week it was reported that the service may be extended to Britain. The company has not yet said whether it will deliver food here.
The reports of the Amazon management culture are of more than academic interest here, not just because of its big presence in Ireland. The gurus in the big tech companies have an influence on managers across the corporate world.
While Amazon has come in for heavy criticism this week, there are plenty of people in the tech industry who defend its demanding work practices. One tech worker tells Review: "Whether you like it or not, these companies offer pointers to how we will all be working in the future.
"Companies like Amazon have to compete with businesses where the working conditions are just as demanding."
In some of the tech companies, work-life balance is heavily tilted in favour of work.
In a recent interview with the Irish Independent, Phil Libin, chief executive of the note-taking software company Evernote seemed to sum up the philosophy: "Your work should be the main thing you identify with. It's your life's work, if you look at it that way. We want people for whom their work is their main mission."
Peter Cosgrove does not condone Amazon work culture, but says employees know what they are letting themselves in for when they join the company. "There are plenty of websites where you can find out what it is like to work in any of these companies."
Amazon's rivals such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft go further in providing perks such as free meals, massages and ping pong tables. Some companies even have laundry services, helping to ensure that employees need only to go home to sleep.
Lorcan Carpenter, recruitment manager at the Dublin operation of the multinational Quantcast, says: "The point of the free meals is to create a collegial environment where people from a variety of functions come together, get to know each other and build relationships."
Others believe that the free perks offered by many digital companies are simply a way of keeping staff on the premises until later.
HR consultant Rowan Manahan says: "If you have four staff members who works 37 hour and you can get them to work for 50 hours, you can basically get one for free. When you add up the figures, that easily pays for the free snacks and coffees."
Most office workers in senior position expect some contact from work after hours, but increasingly it is becoming the norm. For many office workers, we now live in an 'always on' work culture.
Lorcan Carpenter of Quantcast says: "We have offices around the world, so emails will arrive throughout the night, but there is no obligation to reply to anything until the employee is back in the office the next day."
If the New York Times article is to be believed, Amazon seems to have reached an extreme in apparently expecting staff to reply to emails after midnight. This is in stark contrast to some countries in Europe such as France and Germany where there are moves to switch off company email systems when shifts are over.
While Amazon is criticised for its lack of attention to "work-life balance", there are still plenty of tech workers who praise its high expectations of staff. There will still be plenty of eager young recruits prepared to ignore advice given by an Amazon marketing employee: "Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves."
Bezos leadership principles
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
Leaders are owners. They think long term and don't sacrifice long-term value for short-term results.
Invent and Simplify
Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify.
Leaders are Right a Lot
Leasers have strong business judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives.
Hire and Develop The Best
Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognise exceptional talent.
Insist on the Highest Standards
Leaders have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line.
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction.
Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study.
Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention.
Learn and Be Curious
Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. Leaders do not believe their or their team's body odour smells of perfume.
Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are sceptical when metrics and anecdote differ.
Have Backbone: Disagree and Commit
Leaders do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion.