Amazon painted as a “bruising workplace” by New York Times

The New York Times, in a brutal expose posted this weekend:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: “I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.”)

Many of the newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years. The company’s winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — “purposeful Darwinism,” one former Amazon human resources director said. Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.

This is a long read that seems dedicated to painting a specific, one-sided picture of Amazon as a place where:

“Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

Contrast the Times article with this Bezos interview in The Telegraph, also from this weekend. The Bezos interview is a bit of a fluff piece, though also interesting, focused on Bezos and the business philosophies that guide Amazon, with no mention of employees at all.

These are two extreme sides of the same coin.

Bezos responded to the Times piece with a company wide email which, in part, reads:

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting 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. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

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.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

To their credit, the New York Times today published Bezos’ response, in full.

  • A friend’s son was an editor in the music section. The horror stories he can tell are just unbelievable. One example. They want people to never stay in one job for more than three years. He was working on transitioning to another department, when his supervisor changed. (Which is apparently about as often as Bezos’ underwear changes.) She decided she didn’t like him, and told him to not bother trying. She wouldn’t let him transfer anywhere else in the company.

    It became clear she didn’t like him because he was gay. Obviously in a company that large, you can’t control such things completely. But when it’s that cut-throat of an organization, it’s no doubt harder to suss out the discrimination from the simply asinine way someone manages people. Being allowed to act like a Bezos-style libertarian, I man sociopath – but I repeat myself, it’s hard to find the individual examples of illegal management practices vs just being jerks.

  • John

    Here is Tim Bray’s take on Amazon. Tim is a famous ex-Sun/ex-Googler.

  • Robert.Walter

    Could it be that the fun, and talent-related comments, are more applicable to the professional and tech staffs at corporate as opposed to the non skilled staffs in the warehouse and distribution arm? Maybe there are two worlds within Amazon.

    • Should they be treated any differently?

      But the answer is no. The professional staff are treated with just as much abuse. Some like it. Some people are into whips and chains, too.

  • “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

    How much of Amazon do you really see from your ivory tower, Mr Bezos?

    • That’s Libertarian for “I say what I think will gain me the most benefit from moment to moment.”

  • Glaurung-Quena

    Dear nerds who think Amazon is an awful corporate citizen but buy from them anyway: it may surprise you to learn that there ARE other places to shop online.

    I’ve been boycotting Amazon for about seven years now and I’ve never felt deprived or more than moderately inconvenienced.

  • marv08

    “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.”

    Yeah, right. Most people work there because they have plenty of choices… Thankfully, we can rely on all the good humans pointing to China for modern slavery. And while the Foxconn worker supports himself and half his home community with one income, local Amazon staff can enjoy being humiliated by this pompous ass.

    Amazon has great prices and great service. And if something is to good to be true, then maybe it isn’t. Somebody is paying the price here.

  • Cranky Observer
    = = = The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.= = =

    The author of the NYT article has Tweeted to point out that the article neither says nor implies this, which calls into question the rest of Mr. Bezos’ reply.

  • John

    Amazon has 154,000 employees, with a 31% increase in 2014. It also has $5000 pay to quit program. I’m not saying it’s a perfect place to work, it’s a big company in tech where overwork is the norm of the industry. But this reminds me of the hit pieces on Apple over the treatment of Foxconn employees. The NYT piece doesn’t add up.

    • Moeskido

      How do we get to criticize other countries for their lack of workers’ rights when we’re so willing to compromise our own?

      • John

        I think Amazon is a tough place to work but I also think the NYT article paints a black and white picture which I am cautious to swallow whole hog. Criticize away please.

        • Moeskido

          Fine. I criticize the tendency to simply accept that we’re all being expected to work harder for less money, as though it’s purely about free-market economics. It isn’t.

          Apologists have been citing Apple/Foxconn as an excuse to wave off Amazon, which is nonsense.

          We already knew about how Amazon treats its factory workers. The Times revealed something additional that Amazon executives are trying to spin and deny. I expect we’ll hear more as time goes on.

          I’ve said this elsewhere: Amazon is well on its way to becoming the sole retailer for a great many things. If it’s now considered a standard-bearer for its treatment of workers, and is thereby degrading expectations, it merits oversight.

  • Moeskido

    “Just go work somewhere else” is the new “America, love it or leave it.”

  • John

    Moeskido, I’m putting this at the bottom. Makes it easier for you to thrash me and all the other “apologists”. 😉

    A couple of things. I know a few people who work for or have worked at Amazon. On the corporate side it’s fairly political in comparison to other companies. However, the people who work in AWS seem to like it, which is the majority of people I know. My nephew worked on the warehouse and delivery side for 1.5 years. He says it was hard work but was generally fine. Reasonable pay and benefits for the type of work. He said that in comparison to his summer job of roof tarring industrial buildings, that it was a vacation. He now runs his own painting company and employs a 1/2 dozen people.

    Second, take a look at Glassdoor and see what actual Amazon people say. Lots of negative comments there and their overall rating is “fine”. Also take a look at the company you work for and see what it says. You’ll be surprised.

    I work for a company that treats it’s employees well and has a mission to improve things. But then I have more options than most people. I’m also working with friends to raise capital and start a company so we can create good paying jobs for local people. I’m taking a lesson from my nephew because he’s obviously smarter than me.

    • where is the so called thrashing you’ve brought up?

    • Moeskido

      “Thrash”? Nah.

      I’m glad people you know have had good experiences working for Amazon and that you have more opportunities available to you than most. And I hope your venture works out well.

      It’s possible that the Times article was a smear effort, but I’m not convinced of that. Every personal story is anecdotal, until they add up.

      As I said, my concern is that the biggest players in any business sector—often run by predatory douchebags—are the ones who can and will degrade the conditions under which people without many opportunities (of which there are way more than there used to be) can make a living.