Amazon’s Work Culture

This week the big news was Amazon’s work culture. The New York Times article created quite the stir among media outlets so I’m going on a tirade about workplace cultures such as Amazon. Fair warning: this may be a rather long tirade because there is so much wrong about the culture.

I listened to a podcast in which they were discussing the article and workplace culture. The participants seemed to believe the Amazon culture portrayed in the article was common in most workplaces. Some people, they said, may thrive in that type of culture but it’s not for everyone, which I agree, but, I’m not in agreement when some of them said it’s necessary for workplaces to be that way so they can be successful, and, it identifies how the world of work will probably be in the future.

Do workplaces have to be tough and demanding on their employees for success? We blogged before about another workplace culture, DeMoulas’ Market Basket grocery store chain. When the head of the chain, Arthur T. DeMoulas, was ousted last year due to a takeover, it created a stir in the eastern U.S. where the chain is located. The employees set out on their own campaign to bring him back. They wanted to because he treated them like people. Artie T., as they referred to him, talked to employees as he walked through the stores. He knew them by name and asked them about specific incidences in their lives. Imagine a CEO remembering so many different events in employees’ lives! It’s true Amazon is a lot bigger than Market Basket so I don’t expect Jeff Bezos to do the same but what it represents is the difference in culture. After Artie T. returned, there was a question about the future of the Market Basket chain. It’s been a year since the take-over attempt and the DeMoulas’ Market Basket chain is set to make a revenue record this year. Even when the financial picture was uncertain, Artie T. continued to build a sincere and trusting relationship by promising his employees they would still get their bonuses and he came through because he knew their relationship was important and that relationship would help make the chain financially stronger. That appears to be happening as the chain creates their success. As large grocery chains move in and compete with Market Basket, Market Basket continues to prosper and gain new customers. The grocery store chain is also pleased to display t-shirts with a logo of “We did it” and they did by working together through a positive culture.

A similar sentiment has been studied at Wharton School of Business. Using face-to-face interaction can really help encourage employees about the work they do on their job. The study wasn’t necessarily about management style but it did show how positive influences can bring about successful changes.

Something else that showed up on the Wharton site was the idea of measurement and productivity. Much was said in the NYT article about Amazon being driven by numbers. Numbers are fine to a certain point but they don’t always tell the whole story. There are a lot of factors behind the game of numbers. For example, technology in one organization may have an impact on worker productivity and not in another. In one organization, worker skill level may have an impact on productivity but not so in another. Productivity also doesn’t measure skill level. In other words, it’s too hard to compare numbers. There may be people factors involved. In a YouTube video, one Amazon employee from one of the warehouses said the Seattle office was making determinations for the warehouse based on numbers they were reviewing instead of relying on what the people had to say at the warehouse.

As far as the comments about the Amazon being the future of work, we blogged not too long ago about surveys done on what millenials want from the workplace. It’s nothing like the Amazon culture. This week, on our Facebook page, we posted an article from Bloomberg saying part-time work is becoming more popular as workers have other things they would prefer doing than working full-time. Amazon, as it was reported, demands employees be available 24/7 and on vacations.

One of the points brought up in the podcast discussion was Amazon employees could look for other work if they were unhappy. That’s true, but according to the article, some employees received sign-on bonuses and if they didn’t maintain their employment under the terms of the agreement they would have to pay the bonus back. Who wants to owe money? Also, there still is a struggle to find a job. Just this week the Fed said it wouldn’t raise rates because employment wasn’t where it should be. Looking for another job is not always as easy as people make it out to be.

We also heard the reports of the warehouses being so warm ambulances would come because people were collapsing from heat exhaustion. Is there a lack of concern for the health and safety of employees? We also know a group of workers sued a temp agency that hires employees for Amazon because of having to stand in line without pay so they could be screened to prevent theft. Was that an agreement between Amazon and the temp agency that workers had to be screened once they left the warehouse? Both of those occurrences may say something about the culture, too. Apparently, air conditioners are in place but it took an OSHA violation for them to be installed which says there wasn’t much concern for employees. If a company is screening or watching employees or just addressing numbers, it suggests there’s some paranoia by the company and it strongly suggests a lack of trust within the culture. When that occurs, that obviously doesn’t create a positive environment.

Amazon also has had problems with its vendors, too. Some of the book publishing companies took exception with Amazon intimidating them for their purposes. Auto companies did that with some of their suppliers. Wal-Mart also has done that. While the argument for that is they’re always trying to provide value for the customer, how can a company be so concerned about another set of people when they treat those that work for them and provide for them so wrong? It’s so very disingenuous. It’s more about greed not actual concern for customers. Some of those “other” people they mistreat may someday actually be their customers.

After reading Amazon’s 14 principles a few times, I determined they really don’t say anything. It’s as if someone threw a bunch of words together that may sound nice but don’t really make sense. They obviously have very little meaning since some of them apparently are not followed, especially the one about respect. Bloomberg, in their take on the report, said Amazon should add another one about empathy. I’m not sure Amazon would follow it. It makes me wonder if the people that came up with this malarkey wasn’t trying to mimic W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points but with one exception, his make sense. It’s a cinch, though, if Amazon did try to mimic them, they truly didn’t read them or understand them since they follow none of them and they should, it might help them to be even more successful!

I’m the first to admit I’ve shopped on lots of times and we don’t know how accurate the information in the NYT article is. It’s also very one-sided so we don’t have all the information, like we have advocated groups get for problem solving, but we do know there are some organizations out there like Amazon. We also don’t know about the entire Market Basket story but we do know that treating employees with respect and engaging them works and has lasting results. Demoralizing employees and “brow-beating” with numbers and performance evaluations may work for some people but it may also be good only in the short term. Someday, Amazon, too, will fall. This may be the start.

I think it’s important for all of us to remember when we support these types of organizations by purchasing at the cheapest price, we could be reducing another individual’s pay or putting a company out of business or eliminating someone’s job plus encouraging this company and others to continue their bad cultural practices.

Jeff Bezos, you may be a very smart man but you’re not the only smart man. Read Deming’s 14 Points, especially about managing by objectives, quotas and fear!

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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