A weekend New York Times article about the demanding work environment at Amazon has sparked significant conversation in both traditional and social media, not to mention those in “real world” offices everywhere. Many have commented on the impact of “purposeful Darwinism” in which the only survivors are those willing to work incredibly long hours and sacrifice their personal lives for the company’s increasingly ambitious goals.
It’s the individual stories, mostly anonymous, that resonate – a woman with breast cancer and another who gave birth to a stillborn child, then were placed on “performance improvement plans” for not “giving their all” to the company. Parents of young children learned that colleagues had sent negative feedback to their bosses because they didn’t consistently put in the same long hours. Another former employee “cut back working on nights and weekends” to help care for a dying parent, then was told she was “a problem” because she wanted to transfer to a job with less pressure.
In response, Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos claimed the article painted an unfair picture of his company. But his denial felt like too little too late. His first mistake was declining to be interviewed for the story. Even more importantly, he did not have a good counter to the portrayal of what he described as “a soulless, dystopian workplace.”
How can an organization protect its reputation when anonymous employees or former employees make damaging claims?
First, of course, you have to do the right thing. But even when you do everything right, someone can still make accusations. That’s when it’s helpful to be able to point to policies in place to prevent those bad things from happening. How different would the story have been if Bezos had been able to tell the New York Times about specific policies? What if he had said, “We allow employees to take up to four weeks of paid leave for personal or family health reasons…” or “We have a procedure in place for any employee to appeal an unfavorable performance review and here’s how that works.”
Instead, Bezos sent a memo to employees after the story appeared asking them to contact him directly if they knew of “stories like those reported.” If Amazon’s culture is anything like what’s portrayed in the article, I wouldn’t expect a flood of emails.
Meanwhile, while consumers will continue to shop at Amazon, how many talented job seekers will line up to work there in the future?