red leather boxing gloves on white isolated backgroundLast week’s New York Times article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” caused quite a stir. The article describes a corporate culture that apparently tolerates – and even encourages – mis-treatment, discounting, blaming, and worse. Empathy is hard to find.

Over 100 current and former Amazon corporate employees, including leadership team members, human resource directors, retail executives, marketers, and engineers from some of Amazon’s most audacious projects, were interviewed.

Those players provide a very consistent view of the fast-paced, incredibly demanding work culture at Amazon’s corporate offices. It’s not a work environment for everyone. The hours are long and the expectations are higher for individual performance than at any other company these players have worked at.

For an organization that was recently rated as one of the top ten most admired companies in the world by Fortune magazine, the story provided a very unflattering look “behind the curtain” for Amazon.

CEO Jeff Bezos responded quickly. In a memo to Amazon employees, Bezos said that anyone that worked in the kind of culture described in the New York Times story would be “crazy to stay.” He doesn’t believe the story describes the Amazon corporate culture he lives in daily.

A follow up post by the Times‘ public editor asked, “Was Portrayal of Amazon’s Brutal Workplace on Target?” with opinions on both sides of the issue.

I’ve studied organizational cultures – including Amazon’s – for over 40 years. I’ve not lived in the Amazon corporate culture, but I have been seen very consistent indicators that are aligned with the bruising culture the Times‘ article described. On, Amazon’s rating by employees is 3.4 out of five possible points. That’s not bad, but it’s not great when a 4.0 is seen as a great company to work for.

I’ve seen video interviews of former Amazon executives that described the culture as exhausting and exhilarating. I’ve read The Amazon Way. Articles like this 2014 post on Gawker describe Amazon’s “bizarre” corporate culture.

My exposure leads me to believe that Amazon’s corporate office has an incredibly demanding culture that pushes players far beyond what they even dreamed they could do. Some people thrive in that environment; some people wither.

There is no question that Amazon is pushing the limits on the retail experience – with delivery of your order within an hour in some cities and examining delivery by drone. They have a remarkable commitment to their customers (I’m a Prime customer, myself).

And, my 40 years of research on organizational culture leads me to many “truisms.” One that is relevant here: A culture that tolerates mis-treatment, discounting, blaming, and worse is not going to inspire engagement, service, or results over the long term. It might inspire results over the short term, but engagement and service will suffer.

If the only thing that gets measured, monitored, and rewarded in a culture is results, players who choose to stay in that culture will get those results in any way they can. Bending the rules, cheating, screwing your peers, etc. all are on the table. In fact, those behaviors may even be rewarded (!).

That’s not the kind of environment I’d like to work in.

What is your experience? Do you believe Amazon has a “bruising” corporate culture? Does your organization tolerate mis-treatment of employees, discounting, blaming, and/or back-stabbing? If so, what’s the impact on your engagement and on customer service? Share your insights on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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S. Chris Edmonds

Chris helps leaders create purposeful, positive, productive work cultures. He's a speaker, author, and executive consultant. He blogs, podcasts, and video casts. He is the author of two Amazon bestsellers: Good Comes First (2021) and The Culture Engine (2014).
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