The Amazon story of employer brand self-sabotage

By singline 9 years ago

A fascinating piece about Amazon’s workplace culture surfaced a couple of days ago in The New York Times. Based on interviews with current and former Amazon employees, the article illuminated the company’s combative and uncompromising work practices. Here are just a few of the descriptions of the Amazon work experience that appear in the article:

  • 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.
  • [Bo Olson] lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said that his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. “You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face,” he said. “Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”
  • David Loftesness, a senior developer, said he admired the customer focus but could not tolerate the hostile language used in many meetings, a comment echoed by many others.
  • A woman who had breast cancer was told that she was put on a “performance improvement plan” — Amazon code for “you’re in danger of being fired” — because “difficulties” in her “personal life” had interfered with fulfilling her work goals. Their accounts echoed others from workers who had suffered health crises and felt they had also been judged harshly instead of being given time to recover.

At present, this workplace culture does not seem to have adversely affected Amazon’s business success. It recently superseded Walmart as the most valuable retailer in the US. Additionally, maybe the strength of its consumer brand can offset the employer brand deficiencies laid bare in the article. Ongoing success will continue to act as a magnet for prospective employees who want to work for the best regardless of what they may have to contribute or sacrifice.

But it is hard to accept that the very public exposure of Amazon’s inner machinations in The New York Times would not have a negative impact on its employer brand. A percentage of high potential, well-qualified people would surely reconsider whether it is worth working for Amazon, especially when other successful companies are perceived to have more employee friendly environments. It is also worth considering whether the toxic elements of Amazon’s employer brand will be in time taken on by its consumer brand.

The article also draws attention to an intriguing dichotomy about how other employers viewed Amazon’s employer brand. Companies such as Facebook have opened offices in Seattle and benefit from former Amazon employees who are valued for their work ethic. However, the article points out some companies are cautious about hiring Amazon workers because they have been trained to be combative: “The derisive local nickname for Amazon employees is “Amholes” — pugnacious and work-obsessed.”

Company CEO Jeff Bezos has already said he didn’t recognise the Amazon that was described in the article. However, the damage to its employer brand may already be done.


Image: swanksalot via Compfight cc

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