A company in his own image.

Photographer: David Ryder/Getty Images

A Job at Amazon Isn't for Everybody

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
Read More.
a | A

It was the weekend’s great litmus test. After reading Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s epic New York Times account of what it’s like to work at Amazon’s headquarters in Seattle, were you appalled or impressed? Would you never ever ever consider working at that horrible place, or are you filling out an application at www.amazon.jobs right now?

Journalists were of course almost entirely in the former camp. But this shouldn’t be surprising -- one of the main attractions of becoming a reporter has long been that you don’t have to work in a numbers-oriented, meeting-heavy corporate environment. It’s harder to escape that environment nowadays even in journalism, but Amazon clearly takes it to a pretty demanding extreme.

For high-level Silicon Valley types, though, the corporate culture portrayed in the article was actually something to admire -- even two decades after its founding, Amazon still acts like a scrappy startup.

Then there’s the interesting case of Jeff Bezos, who wrote in an e-mail memo to employees that:

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

So Amazon’s founder and chief executive officer is leaving? No, no, he’s trying to say that the New York Times article is wrong. He doesn’t bust Kantor and Streitfeld for any factual errors, mind you. He just argues that they misrepresent Amazon in two big ways.

First, the article contained several anecdotes about former and current employees who claimed to have been pushed out or demoted while going through medical problems or family tragedies. Bezos didn’t deny that these things had happened; he just said they shouldn’t happen and that Amazonians should “escalate to HR” or e-mail him directly if they witnessed such things.

His other big complaint was that the article “claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.” The article didn’t exactly claim that -- given Bezos’s much-documented tendency to laugh extremely loudly for uncomfortably long periods of time, it couldn't have and retained any credibility. Kantor and Streitfeld did, however, argue that Amazon executives differ from their counterparts at Google, Facebook and other tech companies in their approach to attracting and keeping employees. Instead of free food and lavish benefits, Amazon offers something more like a perpetual boot camp. While this approach will never land Amazon on a 100 Best Companies to Work For list and leads to pretty high employee turnover, high turnover is endemic in the tech world anyway and the company seems likely to stay the course as long as it delivers results.

Given that this description fits with just about everything else I’ve ever heard or read about Amazon, including Brad Stone’s excellent history of the company, “The Everything Store,” I believe it. Here’s an account from that book of an all-hands staff meeting in the company’s early days:

During one memorable meeting, a female employee pointedly asked Bezos when Amazon was going to establish a better work-life balance. He didn’t take that well. “The reason we are here is to get stuff done, that is the top priority,” he answered bluntly. “That is the DNA of Amazon. If you can’t excel and put everything into it, this might not be the place for you.”

When this is the message from the top, of course you are going to get ambitious mid-level managers who give employees low performance ratings for getting thyroid cancer, or who think it’s OK to build a distribution center in Pennsylvania with no air conditioning, then station paramedics outside during heat waves to treat stricken workers. That doesn’t mean Bezos wants his people doing those specific things, just that they are in keeping with the overall corporate ethos of putting customers first and being frugal.

In the case of the Pennsylvania warehouse, after the local Morning Call newspaper published an in-depth look at the appalling conditions, the company spent $52 million adding air conditioners there and at other facilities around the country. It had been mistreating low-wage workers who had few options, and deserved to be shamed into changing its behavior.

As for its treatment of white-collar workers in Seattle, I’m not sure that -- apart from the occasional mistreatment of the ailing that Bezos now says won’t be tolerated -- there’s much for Amazon to be ashamed of. These are people who for the most part do have options and alternatives, and many of them choose to leave. But many actually thrive in Amazon’s tough environment, and don’t perceive it as unpleasant. That was the message I got from the Times article, and also from Nick Ciubotariu’s much-read LinkedIn defense of life at the company. The latter is a silly, unnecessarily defensive piece of writing -- my favorite part is where he accuses Kantor and Streitfeld of having made up the derogative term “Amhole” (“I’ve never heard anyone say this, and as an insult, it wouldn’t make a very good one, in my opinion”), when two seconds of Googling reveals that the term has been in use around Seattle since at least 2012. What an Amhole! But clearly Ciubotariu, the head of infrastructure development for the company’s “search experience,” has had a rewarding 18 months at Amazon. More power to him.

The bigger question is how long Amazon can keep this up. Rivals such as Google, Apple and Facebook can sometimes seem to be in possession of secret recipes, formulas that allow them to keep churning out massive and rising profits year after year. Amazon has never made much in the way of profit; its main competitive advantage may well be its willingness to accept razor-thin or negative margins. This is a company that simply can’t afford complacency.

So far Amazon’s ambitions and its rising stock price -- there was an eight-year lull after the dot-com bubble, but in general the trajectory has been upward -- have enabled it to keep attracting great people and driving them hard. The hiring approach feels a little like the traditional law or consulting firm set-up -- bring in lots of really smart young people and work them hard, with the understanding that only a minority get to stick around as partners and get rich. That arrangement has been unraveling lately in the law, but who’s to say it can’t work for another decade or two at Amazon?

  1. In a 2013 report by the salary-survey company Payscale, Amazon tied with Aflac for having the second-highest employee turnover among large American corporations (Mass Mutual was first). But Google was tied for fourth. See also my Bloomberg View colleague Leonid Bershidsky's take on the general put-work-first ethos in techland.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net