Amazon won't tolerate 'callous' workplace practices, Jeff Bezos says

The online retailer Amazon that Jeff Bezos launched from a garage in Washington state in 1995 has grown into an internet juggernaut renowned for innovation. But at what cost to its employees' personal lives?

Not your Google-friendly campus, New York Times story puts a human price on Amazon's success

Amazon Chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos samples cooked cockroach at the 110th Explorers Club Annual Dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in New York in March 2014. Over two decades, Amazon has grown from an internet retailer Bezos founded in a garage to an internet juggernaut renowned for innovation. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

As workplace practices go, getting edged out of your job or receiving a bad performance review as you are trying to recover from cancer, miscarriage or some other personal crisis does seem rather heartless.

And it is stories like this that has Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on the defensive after a New York Times weekend feature on life inside the Seattle-based online retail giant.

Bezos took umbrage with the Times piece and insisted in an email to employees Sunday that the company won't stand for "callous" management practices.

Callous or not, whatever Amazon has done has turned the online retailer Bezos launched from a garage in Washington state in 1995 into a business juggernaut.

At the same time, its apparently Darwinian management style has also set it apart from other equally famous tech giants — like employee-coddling ping pong-playing Google. And this has all raised the question currently making the rounds: At what cost is all that success and innovation to its employees' personal lives?

Industry observer Phil Simon, who has been paying attention to Amazon since its inception, thought the Times piece was "pretty fair and accurate.

"It's never been an easy place to work," says Simon, a Nevada-based author and speaker who wrote The Age of the Platform, which compares Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.

Still, he notes, there's the undeniable fact that Amazon has become renowned for innovation, which the marketplace has certainly seen fit to reward. 

For example, Forbes reported earlier this year that's Amazon Web Services business, its fastest-growing segment, is a " $5-billion-a-year enterprise and could be a $6-billion business by the end of 2015."

Could I survive?

For his part, though, Simon wondered if he could "tolerate being sick and dealing with the trauma of cancer, as I think the article pointed out, and then being dinged on the performance review.

"I don't know if I could survive in that kind of environment, but it's tough to argue with their results. You have to think about it terms of carrots and sticks." 

Forbes has reported that's Amazon Web Services business, its fastest-growing segment, 'could be a $6-billion business by the end of 2015.' (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

And at Amazon, for some employees at least, there are some pretty big carrots. "Successful midlevel managers can collect the equivalent of an extra salary from grants of a stock that has increased more than tenfold since 2008," the Times reported.

And that financial incentive might well compensate for any workplace conditions considered less than desirable.

"If you've a multimillion-dollar carrot in the form of …. stock options at the end of the rainbow, you'll probably suck it up," says Simon.

"By the same token, if you don't have those options, or if the stock is underwater … then you've got very valuable skills and the pedigree of working at a very established company like Amazon [and] you may decide it's not worth it."

'Unrealistic pressure'

Still, does your workplace have to be the way it's been reported at Amazon?

Steve Prentice, a Toronto-based writer and speaker on productivity techniques, thinks not.

Retailers can learn from Amazon's innovations and developments, but some of the workplace stories reported by the Times struck Prentice as "somewhere between the Marines and a cult.

"There's this incredible culture of both unrealistic pressure and basically public shaming to force people to move forwards at the cost of their own lifestyle and some family" life, he says.

From his perspective, an employer can get further ahead by acknowledging their employees' human dignity and talents.

"Far more can be done through happiness than through fear," he says.

The Google way

Prentice does see virtue in at least some of the apparent Amazon philosophy. For example, he likes "their aversion to dead wood and wastage.

But he would rather a company look at "the dynamics and analytics of workflow and assign it according to people's abilities" rather than creating an "impossible list and rule through fear, which is what I see companies like Amazon doing. They're not unique in this."

For his part, Prentice sees more value in the Google approach, where the company has become renowned for the way it treats its employees.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos took umbrage with New York Times article, and insisted in an email to employees Sunday that the company won't stand for 'callous' management practices. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press)

"I think there are a lot of companies that have recognized … there's productivity and profitability from a comfortable community rather than an army of, in their own words, Amabots."

Simon says he couldn't conclude whether the Amazon approach or the Google approach is right or wrong. It depends on each individual employee and where he or she may be in life.

"Google famously gives people the ping pong tables and the free lunches, and Google can because I think it just has a different type of culture," says Simon.

He also notes Google is based in San Francisco, where there's a "greater war for talent" from the likes of Facebook and other Silicon Valley tech companies, whereas Amazon is based in Seattle and doesn't face quite the same competition for workers.

In the end, an employee has to sort out what is best for him or her, Simon says.

"If you're 25 years old, you may be able and willing to put in 90 hours a week because you don't have any children," he says.

"But if you're 40 years old and [have] three kids and you're never home for them, I can see how that would be a real problem."