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The hoopla triggered by The New York Times on the Amazon culture has not subsided.

Cruel

Bruising

Dickensesque (as a literary reference, my personal favorite)

And these were some of the more measured descriptions of the Amazon culture that have come to light and created a PR crisis.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was quick to jump into damage-control mode sending out a missive to the troops (full Bezos note at the end of the post). Rather than whine about shoddy NYT reporting, he makes a case that judgment from the outside doesn’t align with reality:

“The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”

All in all, Bezos’ incredulous response is one we haven’t seen since Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) in “House of Cards.”

But is it genuine?

What the Media Coverage Missed

In spite of the rising mountain of coverage that seems to have turned over every rock within a mile radius of the Amazon HQ, one important point has been overlooked.

Amazon essentially invented the use of analytics in driving corporate performance. This is a company that probably measures how much time elapses from dropping your quarters into the vending machine to when the bag of Doritos plops to the bottom.

Do you think the HR function in Amazon is any different? I guarantee that Amazon’s HR function conducts employee satisfaction surveys on an annual basis. The numbers from these surveys surely reveal the same issues articulated in the NYT article.

I say “surely” because if the numbers proved otherwise, that’s how Bezos and his lieutenants would have defended the company. Think about it. What would have been more fitting than Bezos rolling out chart after chart proving with hard data that employees love Amazon, leaving the world to conclude that The New York Times whiffed on the story?

But that’s not how it played out.

Bezos knows there’s a Darwinian quality to the Amazon environment. This suits him. It serves as the underpinning for a company that has become one of the most valuable online brands on the planet to a point that its market value challenges Wal-Mart.WSJ-Clicks Meet Mortar 08-15What’s more, his employees know the tradeoff in culture to fuel performance. They’re dealing with it from the time they wake up until they go to sleep.

Three Choices for Reputation Management

As the chief steward of Amazon’s corporate reputation, Bezos had three choices in responding:

  • Denial
  • Own it
  • Acknowledge the problem

In choosing denial, Bezos took the one path that isn’t genuine and can potentially hurt the company over the long term. Again, you can’t fool employees who see the actions and behavior from the company’s leadership on a daily basis.

It’s not exactly out of the Corporate Reputation 101 playbook, but Bezos could have “owned it” (in the words of our vice president, Steve Jursa). In other words, he could have said, “Yes, this is a tough environment and it’s not for everyone, but this is who we are. Because this is what it takes to win in a marketplace that crushes those who even think about being soft.” From this narrative, he could have explained the challenge of building a culture that values conflict as a means to better decision making without going over the top and morphing into “Lord of the Flies.” And he could have concluded with plans to revisit this balancing act because this quest for better decisions shouldn’t have to come at the expense of basic human decency.

The third path — acknowledge the problem — would have started the company on a path toward rehabilitation. Bezos could have even dusted off those employee survey charts mentioned earlier to establish that this is something the company has been grappling with for some time. And the NYT story has served as a catalyst for Amazon to become an even better self, perhaps channeling John F. Kennedy with the line, “The time to fix a roof is when the sun is shining.”

No one likes to be told what to do. I suspect this is especially the case with Bezos. He’s probably been cogitating on the very issue exposed by the NYT for some time, which doubled the sting.

Turning to the PR function

I’ve always felt that PR at its best acts as the conscious of a company, ensuring behavior aligns with values and the brand. Instead, Amazon placed Jay Carney, SVP of global corporate affairs on CBS in hopes of steering the narrative to the middle ground. It didn’t work. Damage control shaped his sound bites as opposed to addressing root cause.

Given Carney cut his teeth in politics both covering and working in the White House, he must have known his mission was doomed from the get go. Which also tells us Mr. Bezos alone is calling the shots to diffuse this PR crisis and make the name calling go away.

I don’t think this issue is going to dissipate over time. Now every employee departure presents a potential trigger to resurrect the narrative on Amazon’s culture.

Until Bezos comes forth with a response that truly reflects his viewpoint.

Bezos’ Note to Amazon Employees

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:..

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff


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