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The Culture of Amazon: Exploitative or Effective?


AUGUST 20, 2015

Shocking workloads, memorizing leadership principles, laminated cards describing the culture, quizzes on the culture and rewards for perfect scores, pushed to play devil’s advocate, late nights, sabotaging others careers, mechanisms to secretively provide feedback on other employees, significant turnover valued, high risk/high reward, attractive stock options, lack of concern for people with health issues or personal crisis, practiced use of counselling out, purposeful Darwinism, a.k.a Amazon. This outrageously successful, innovative company does things differently. Secrecy is a part of their culture.  Even low-level employees have to sign a confidentiality agreement. Amazon is a tough work environment, but offers exciting opportunities to create new ideas, new products and innovate. John Rossman, a former executive, is quoted as saying, “It’s the greatest place I hate to work.” Recently, The New York Times published an exposé on the work environment at Amazon describing just that.  But how different is Amazon from other work places? Quite frankly, a lot of public accounting firms and public law firms function in a similar fashion. We talk about work-life balance or work-life choices all of the time. However, many organizations still struggle with that equation. As companies have focused on doing more with less, contracting more work with independent contractors as opposed to employees, they are left with a core group of people who are working harder than ever before at the craziest pace they have ever worked. This has been going on since prior to the Great Recession. I remember my first job out of college at Accenture, but back then was known as Andersen Consulting. There were numerous times we pulled all-nighters. When we were sent to St. Charles for training it was indoctrination to that work environment.  We started early and ended late. Everything was measured and pressure was high. Many people in my training cracked and others partied at night to let off steam, but nonetheless the strongest survived.  I’m not writing this to defend Amazon. Personally, I do not enjoy working in environments like that and my guess is most people don’t. But we all want to be a part of a winning team.  We love to create and innovate and we want to be a part of something special.  Sometimes we are willing to forego quality of life for the quality of our invention.  As long as we are making a conscious choice, isn’t that okay? I’ve always said that there are cultures that are a lot more fun than other cultures, but that did not make the cultures that were not fun, bad.  Steve Jobs at Apple was known for being a tough person to work for and for creating a sometimes frustrating workplace culture. People still wanted to work for Jobs and Apple, and for many of the same reasons people want to work for Amazon.  The culture and expectations were clear.  It’s not muddied. The difference between a great culture and a bad culture is clarity. And, from what I can tell, Amazon has clarity. Now all they need is a little heart. What say you?

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