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by Phil Stott | August 17, 2015


By now, you've probably seen or heard about the New York Times' recent expose of what it's like to work at Amazon. I mean, who doesn't love a good behind-the-scenes take on one of the most successful companies in the world? Especially when it gives us a phrase as memorable as "purposeful Darwinism" to describe the culture.

While I'm not a particularly loyal Amazon customer, I have to admit to a strange desire to want to give the company the benefit of the doubt. Maybe it's the years of experience I have reading survey responses from consultants at leading firms, but whenever I hear criticism from individual employees at a firm with several thousand workers, I'm inclined to take them with a grain of salt. Not in terms of their veracity—I've no doubt that the stories in the piece have been checked out prior to publication—but simply because they're anecdotes. And we all know that data is not the plural of anecdote.

In other words, being able to find people who have been treated badly within an organization doesn't necessarily indicate that there's a systemic problem with the organization itself. And—trust me on this—you can always find someone who has an axe to grind with an employer (especially if it's a former employer).

Consider, for example, the competing stories told in the Times piece: the one about a worker who felt she was marginalized when she took time off to care for an ailing parent, and the rebuttal from Amazon about an executive who was offered all the support she needed to deal with a spouse who had cancer. Is either story completely true? Both of them? And, if so, what does that say about the company's policy? That one of them had a jerk boss? That one was deemed more valuable and therefore offered support? Or that different people in different circumstances make different decisions, and that sometimes a company's policies aren't followed to the letter?

To be clear, I don't think that Amazon emerges from this story in a positive light at all. Far more compelling than the individual tales is the collective sense—something not really contested by the Amazon reps cited in the piece—that the stack ranking system in place at Amazon has created an environment that borders on toxic, with people invested in tearing down their colleagues to further their own prospects. Particularly damning is the suggestion that employees, particularly women, feel that they can't speak up for fear of being torn down, and that managers hoard talent rather than encouraging employee development, lest they be next on the chopping block.

But, as depressing as it is to note, all of that is pretty standard fare at organizations where stack ranking is a component of the performance evaluation system--something that I've covered here before. And yet despite that, potential employees flock to the firm, eager to work for one of the most recognizable names in the world of business. Even if they don't stay for much longer than a year or two, that name on their resumes will open up all kinds of opportunities down the line. As such, the description in the piece of the firm as "a new kind of workplace" envisioned by Jeff Bezos seems to sum up the firm well: "fluid but tough, with employees staying only a short time and employers demanding the maximum."

While it doesn't much sound like the kind of environment where I'd want to work, I can well imagine that there are plenty of people who would be prepared to make the tradeoff for a shot at a prestigious career—despite this past weekend's revelations.

What's your take? Has your opinion of Amazon shifted in light of the Times article? Would you work there—or have you in the past? Let us know in the comments below.

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