Company Culture Is a Spectrum

The NY Times recently published an article covering the concerning working conditions at Amazon.  It highlights past employees who talk about how Amazon’s culture pushes people to the edges of their mental health and then pushes some more.

While that’s concerning, in a systemic tech industry cancer sort of way, what’s even more concerning is what happened after the article was published.  First came an opinion piece from a current employee where they tried to disprove, discredit, or deny the experiences found in the original article.  This piece quotes the past employees one by one and then follows up with some good old fashioned explainin’ as if those past employees were mistaken in how they felt.  As an example, where one past employee claims to have seen most of their co-workers cry at their desks, our brave Amazonian White Knight is quick to let us know that he’s never seen anyone cry at their desk.  He then condemns the past employee for not speaking up right away, as if it’s that easy.

Next came a follow up piece in the NY Times where Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, denies that this culture exists.  In his words, “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”  He then goes on to recommend the opinion piece from the current employee, because it’s much easier to deny something when you’ve got an accomplice.

Ironically, this one-two punch response gives weight to the original NY Times article.  If a guy with a “Head of Infrastructure Development” title can demonstrate such a stunning lack of empathy and then be applauded by the CEO, I don’t think it’s a far stretch to assume that rank and file employees are getting burned out and mistreated.

That’s not to say the current employee or CEO are wrong, either.  Their experiences at Amazon could be pleasant from their perspective.  I’ll let someone else write the article that points out both this Head employee and the CEO are white men in leadership positions and many of the negative viewpoints in the original NY Times article are from women and employees in non-leadership roles.

So let’s just say we have people and some of them were unhappy at Amazon and others are happy.  This is possible.  There isn’t a mystery here to solve.  Which one is right?  Both of them, probably.  To read negative experiences and then counter them with your own positive experiences is, as I’ve already pointed out, extremely rude and unbecoming of management, but it’s also a false dichotomy.

Company cultures are spectrums.  Companies are big, management is diverse and multi-headed.  Let’s put away the discussion that Amazon’s culture is either good or bad and accept that Amazon’s culture is good for some people and bad for others.  Lots of completely valid things make cultures work for some and not for others.  Many of them stem from differences in privilege.  Others from crummy managers or lack of executive vision.  At Zynga I watched some teams get showered in trips to Vegas every other month while less successful teams, often times trapped within the regime of their bad management, worked long hours with no bonus compensation.

Since we are talking about a spectrum, we can define the spectrum by measuring its lower and upper bound.  More concretely, what are the range of experiences an employee can have while working at Amazon?  It’s safe to say these recent articles about Amazon help define its lower bound.  The upper bound is also easy to define, because it’s the thing recruiters and PR love to talk about.  Getting free lunch every day and having an on-site bouncy castle is part of a pretty good upper bound.  But even if you add free dinner, a two-story spiral slide, and free gym memberships, you’ve done nothing to affect the lower bound.

It follows that the people in charge of employee well-being should be tracking both bounds separately and constantly raising the bar on both.  This can’t happen if we homogenize employee experiences and choose only to focus on the best possible outcomes.  For a company that prides itself on data analysis, Amazon should be ashamed that its model for one of its most important resources, employee health, is so crude.