Its only been a few days since a recent New York Times piece rocked the world of tech giant Amazon, calling the company’s work culture “bruising” and one where annually firings are fuelled by “purposeful Darwinism.”
Like any fearless leader would, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos tried to counter the backlash, asking employees to tell him how they really feel.
“The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,” Bezos wrote. “But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at email@example.com.”
Unfortunately for Bezos, his challenge was accepted by both the media and employees. The response, so far, has been overwhelming.
Sure, you can attribute the sweeping media coverage to capitalizing on the buzz and generating clicks, but there’s a more sinewy interior than that, one that needs to be explored.
The truth is, we’re shocked because the technology world is one that, for the most part, we don’t understand, yet still feel an unshakeable emotional affinity to. Brands like Amazon or Apple have interwoven themselves in the fabric of our day-to-day existence.
“It is akin to friendship and trust; the brand takes care of me,” David Soberman, Canadian National Chair in Strategic Marketing at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management told Yahoo Canada. “Many of us have experienced the excellent services of Amazon and this leads to a warm feeling (but) when we then read about the harsh, performance driven culture of Amazon’s workplace, we may feel a disconnect.”
We expect a lot from the big brands and their captains – the Jeff Bezos, the Mark Zuckerbergs, the Larry Pages and the Elon Musks of the world. These are our peeps, the saviours of the workplace, the ones who have inspired (read: scared) both startups and rickety old multinationals to incorporate an admirable work culture. They’ve brought fun to the workplace.
But what the 100 employees who participated in the NYT article and the voices that have come out since tell us is that the NYT fact checkers are either on holidays or we’ve been duped and these are not fun places to work.
“I think most people would not be surprised that Amazon is performance driven,” says Soberman. “It is the stories about employees who have had misfortune in their lives yet not received compassion in their treatment at work that upset some people.”
The stories tend to suggest that being good to the consumer doesn’t always mean being good to the employees.
“In general, the tech companies have been dominating these ‘best places to work’ lists and because of that I think it’s quite easy for us to assume that all tech companies are necessarily great places to work,” explains Cara Maurer, an assistant professor of general management and organizational behaviour at Western University’s Ivey Business School. “I think it’s a faulty conclusion.”
For a brand like Amazon, whose goal is to sell everything to everyone, everywhere, face time is key. So the interaction between employees and consumers is a critical part of the process.
“I think because we are so excited about new technologies and things changing that we are sometimes forgetting to ask the right questions about what is behind that,” says Maurer. “We’re so happy for fast fashion for example, if it means we have trendy and cheap stuff to wear, that we don’t stop to ask what’s behind-the-scenes – like who these people are and what the working conditions are.”
The same goes for a brand like Toyota or FedEx. Behind their logos you’ll find sophisticated supply chain management, tens of thousands of employees working away on assembly lines, in warehouses, under fluorescent lighting. Even innovation, of the scale (albeit less publicized) that you’d see at an Apple or an Amazon, is taking place.
Yet, we don’t see them the same way.
“Companies like Toyota and FedEx, that provide an important but more utilitarian function in the lives of the general public, have to work harder to foster a stronger sense of emotional connection,” explains Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, vice president of U.S. strategic consulting at the Reputation Institute, a consultancy firm focused on company’s reputations. “They also need to find ways to break through the white-noise of the corporate communications and marketing rhetoric, to help elevate their reputation.”
The truth is, no matter how strong the inner culture is at a brand like FedEx, Amazon is sexier and thusly has a lot further to fall when it disappoints the consumer with a ragged-edge personnel management culture.
But there’s another element at play here, one that goes back to our emotional connections to these tech companies and their products, why we don’t consider them capable of evil.
Simply, we just really, really want them to be good, says Dr. Brynn Winegard, a marketing expert at Winegard and Company.
“We let them off the hook for god knows what – everything including breach of privacy, they are the wave of the future and we don’t know much about that,” says Winegard. “The problem with a lack of knowledge is that we don’t know much about technology so we give them all kinds of leeway and we sign on their dotted lines because we figure we need them.”
These tech companies are the cowboys of this generation, and we admire them for it says Winegard.
“And the world is intensifying it by putting such laser focus on the high tech category in general,” she says. “They feel, I’m sure, as if they are under a magnifying glass and that this is very intense and cult-like – you either buy it or you don’t, you’re either out of there and you run for the hills or you are completely in it.”
But after years as the bastion of tech power, Silicone Valley is dismantling and employees are trying to get out. Needless to say, it’s a bad time for Bezos and Amazon’s inner workings to be called into question.
“Amazon has been known for their intense obsession around customers and there’s a flip side to that: in order to deliver great value to your customers you need your employees,” adds Maurer. “If the balance tips over too much to your consumers then you might be suddenly feeling a pulling back on the employee side.”
As the war to attract talent heats up in Silicon Valley, outpourings like the one in NYT will make it more difficult for brands like Amazon to attract and retain talent. It’ll also leave a bad taste in the mouth of consumers.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing – more dialogue, more critical questions – because these companies are literally shaping the society we live in,” says Maurer. “It’s important that we all have an opinion on it so it doesn’t just happen automatically without us detecting it.”