Would You Work At Amazon?

By Ken Garner
In August 28, 2015

I’m a student of organizational culture. After nearly 50 years of work experience in a variety of companies with different organizational cultures, I’m fascinated by what I believe is a direct correlation between long-term success and the work culture that both describes the personality of the company and dictates the behavior of its employees. With this in mind I was captivated by a lead article that appeared in a recent edition of the NY Times that attempted to describe the very unique culture that exists at the most valuable retailer in the U.S. This was not a brief overview occupying a couple of paragraphs. This was a lengthy article that included interviews with a variety of both current an past employees that I some cases offered conflicting views related to Amazon’s approach to hiring and retaining only the best of the best.

It’s hard to criticize a commitment to building a highly competent, committed and driven workforce. But at what cost? Newly hired employees are introduced to the company’s 14 leadership principles (developed by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos) during an intense orientation (indoctrination?). Amazon’s approach is not disingenuous. They proudly admit that they hold employees to an “unreasonably high” standard. It’s no secret that employees are expected to maintain a 24/7 level of commitment where personal and family obligations are expected to be subordinated to the interests of the company. It was “interesting” to read about a highly competitive work environment where employees are driven to be highly and openly critical of colleagues. Amazon maintains a something referred to as the Anytime Feedback Tool that enables (encourages) employees to send praise or criticisms about colleagues to management – without attribution.

As I said, not every individual interviewed was critical of the culture. Some found it stimulating and empowering. They were energized by a work environment where big ideas are translated into strategies that shape the world of retailing. Critics site experiences where the open competition between employees is characterized by self-interest and is far from constructive. They talk about personal experiences that led to what appeared to be emotional breakdowns inside the company’s headquarters.

Ultimately, the question becomes whether this “churn and burn” strategy where the median tenure is reported to be one year is a sustainable strategy. It’s hard to argue the results. As we said, Amazon recently surpassed Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the country. The odds are very high that everyone who reads this blog will be an Amazon customer. And, a large number of potential recruits continue to aspire to work for Amazon. Is this the new reality? Is this what it takes to succeed in a hyper-competitive global environment?  But, it also begs the question “why do companies exist?”  Should companies exist to develop a nation of “Amholes”? Even Jeff Bezos in his response to the article deplored the notion that Amazon had created a culture that is a “soulless, dystopian workplace”. He admitted that he didn’t think that “any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.”

All of this provides lots of food for thought. I encourage you to read both the article and a sampling of the thousands of responses the NY Times received. Try and develop a balanced perspective. But in the end, take something away that will help you consider the organizational culture that you currently have, and perhaps the culture you would like to move to. Send me your thoughts, please.

Ken Garner

President & CEO Ken Garner joined Epicomm – then the Association of Marketing Service Providers – in November 2008 as its President and CEO after a 33 year career in the printing industry – all with the same company. He joined United Litho, a heatset web magazine printing company, after receiving his undergraduate degree. Working his way up the corporate ladder from janitor/delivery driver he held a variety of jobs including V.P of Operations and V.P. of Sales and Marketing. He spent the last 12 years of his printing career as United Litho’s president. In 1994, he engineered the sale of the company to the Sheridan Group and became a member of its Leadership Team.

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