By Rita Trehan
One of the greatest challenges businesses face now is the rapid flow of information and resulting public opinion. I need only point to the recent article in The New York Times on Amazon’s company culture and the resulting groundswell of negative opinion.
Although the article doesn’t feel intended as a takedown piece, it’s a very public indictment of the company’s high-pressure, seemingly cutthroat corporate culture which seems much more intent on analytics than employee longevity. Pieces have been snipped from the article, which outlines many tales of Amazon’s people working on vacation, hiring freelancers on their own dime to overcome insurmountable workloads, criticism at the hands of teammates and managers to the point of crying, and an overall sense of trying to find comfort in an environment that, as the article describes it, thrives on discomfort. Ideas are meant to be hacked apart, holidays were meant to be worked through. They believe in mass layoffs, and they trim their ranks annually.
As a result, CEO Jeff Bezos has gone on the defensive, sending an email to his workforce saying that he didn’t recognize the Amazon described in the piece, that workers should have gone so far — and in the future, should go so far — as to report such incidents to Human Resources or to him directly. He goes on to say that he knows the employees that work there are the best of the best, that they could choose to work anywhere and are recruited every day to do such a thing. He hopes they’re laughing and enjoying a workplace that’s changing the world.
It’s unusual for Bezos or Amazon to respond to a news report, but this one strikes to the heart of the importance of something that could affect the stock price and profitability faster than almost anything else: employer brand.
It is the power of employer brand that brought a usually silent Bezos to comment on a news report to his employee base. Because it truly affects everything, particularly with a brand who has a leadership value of being obsessed with the customer.
As a corporate brand, Amazon is the most profitable retailer in the world, having recently surpassed Wal-Mart in all manner of financial success. The retail giant is on the cutting edge of customer service and sales, offering pretty much anything you want at a price that’s reasonable anywhere you need it delivered. They’re looking at technology that could render (and has rendered) local small businesses obsolete: drone and in-market delivery, unsurpassed customer service, and a dedication to cloud technology that has revolutionized how we consume information. The stock price proves how valuable the brand is, and the rapid expansion of the company throughout Seattle is proof positive that Bezos and his genius team know what they’re doing. Customers trust Amazon with their needs and financial information, and they’re rewarded with receiving merchandise that arrives almost before they know they need it.
But this news report has lifted the veil on what were whisperings of a rather wicked employer brand. Bezos has said, “It’s not easy to work here,” and the Times article seems to back that up. The reports from former employees were scathing, and it paints a picture that not only would you be pushed to your limits, but that you could be torn down by your teammates while attempting to do your best and be chided for not working through family and healthy concerns or vacation. Hard-working individuals want the kind customer service person who works directly with them and all of those people who meet their needs to be treated with respect and care, and learning these details could send customers to other retailers. Recruiting top talent could become a chore if they know they’re expected to burn out, that longevity isn’t expected and that 85-hour work weeks are the norm. No extras, no snacks: just a regular cash payout on stock that seems virtually bulletproof and more work. It’s nearly impossible to recruit future talent into an environment where they know they won’t be respected.
All of that said, there are two sides to every story. There was a rebuttal written by an Amazon employee who stands firm that the Times article was written as a takedown piece, that there does exist a strong culture of caring and concern, that your worth is more than your analytics. Bezos’ reply was swift and hopefully called the question of truth, starting internal investigations on whether or not what was reported in the article was truth or scorned ex-employee skewering. But the entire thing stands as a monument to always remember the importance of employee connection, and not just of your current employees, but the “alumni,” so to speak. If that many ex-employees were lining up to tell many of the same tales and seemed to pain a dystopian picture up to a decade later in some cases, it’s worth reviewing.
Although it’s hard to argue with profitability, it’s also hard to sustain monumental growth on lack of rights and respect. At the least, the company needs to handle the claims in the media so it won’t impact recruiting efforts, but at the most, these claims should be investigated and the corporate culture examined. It would only take one giant class action lawsuit to destroy the house that so many have worked so hard to build. The sanctity of an employer brand is crucial to long-term success. Amazon must do what it takes to protect theirs, but even more important, it must clearly define what it means to be an Amazonian, which should include unassailable, reasonable rights for their employees.
As a global HR leader at Honeywell and The AES Corporation, Rita helped rethink how business was done. From profitable ways to launch business units around the world to inspired means of measuring performance, she consistently improved strategic operations, saving time and money in the process.
Rita has led change management initiatives in more than 30 countries across five continents. She has enacted communication and engagement strategies, safety, and performance improvement initiatives in 27 countries, delivering savings of more than $100million.
Rita is a regular contributor to the Washington Post, as well as producing guest articles publications such as Corporate Vision, Changeboard, Fresh Business Thinking and My Money Making Magazine. Through her writing, Rita has explored a range of topics from recruitment and social media to leadership and transformation.
As the vice chair of the Cioindex Inc. Women in Technology Leadership Special Interest Group (SIG), Rita provides education, thought leadership and knowledge sharing among women working in senior positions in technology businesses. Rita is also a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), where Rita shares her vision of HR and support change in business and the wider community.