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Amazon Report: How Bezos Should Respond

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said he doesn't see the dystopian workplace described in a New York Times exposé. That doesn't mean it's not there. Let Amazon be judged by how it treats the least among its workers.
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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos doesn't recognize the "soulless, dystopian workplace" described in a New York Times report about the company that appeared over the weekend.

In what's being characterized as an "internal memo" – let's pretend it wasn't intended for public consumption – Bezos encourages employees to email him if they witness the inhumane treatment of employees that he insists he's never seen.

"The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day," wrote Bezos.

When was the last time a CEO complained about the company he founded, or put up with unaccommodating subordinates? Bezos doesn't have to spend unpaid time being searched at the end of every shift so that merchandise isn't stolen from Amazon's warehouses. He doesn't have to worry about non-compete clauses in temporary work contracts. His job is secure. When you're a CEO, a billionaire, and a widely admired innovator, things generally look pretty rosy.

Tim Bray, a senior engineer at Amazon Web Services and a veteran of Google and Sun Microsystems, also denies seeing the kinds of incidents reported by the Times – people crying at work, people fired without justification, outrageous hours, and a hostile work environment. "Not say­ing that nev­er did hap­pen, or isn't hap­pen­ing some­where, just that I haven't seen it," he wrote in a blog post.

Yet Bray, too, is privileged in his view. As one person posting on Hacker News quipped sacrastically, "Yeah, I'm totally astounded an Internet personality who is well known to have a very loud voice and is financially secure enough not to be easily controllable isn't treated poorly…"

Another Amazon employee, Nick Ciubotariu, head of infrastructure development at Amazon.com Search Experience, ups the ante by accusing the New York Times of bias, of deliberate inaccuries, without any evidence of animus. "I'm not going to stand idly by as a horribly misinformed piece of 'journalism' slanders my company in public without merit," he wrote, and then went on to imply that his experience at the company somehow outweighs the experiences reported in Times article.

If Amazon really wanted to settle this matter, it would invite all non-management employees to participate in an anonymous online survey about workplace satisfaction, and to have those survey results sent directly to the New York Times for publication.

I happen to know one of the "more than 100 current and former Amazonians" interviewed in the Times article. I emailed him about it over the weekened, and said he thought the article captured the environment at Amazon very well. Public discussions of the article in a variety of forums have brought posts from people reporting similar experiences. Moreover, this is hardly the first report to raise questions about Amazon's labor practices.

While Amazon may be hoping that positive narratives cancel the negative ones, that's not how the company should be judged. Amazon can be both wonderful and horrible at the same time.

In that, it's just like a lot of large companies. Apple CEO Steve Jobs is said to have treated some employees terribly, and the labor issues associated with its manufacturing contractors are well known. Apple, to its credit, has responded to criticism. Presumably, Amazon will too.

It has always been thus. Tension between labor and management exists everywhere. It requires constant attention, like a marriage. It's not something that can be taken for granted. With luck, it can be managed profitably, humanely, and ecologically for all concerned. If it isn't, it becomes a problem, as it appears to have become for Amazon.

With more than 150,000 employees and many different business units, Amazon can be compared to a city. How would you characterize, say, San Francisco? It has beautiful neighborhoods and miserable ones. It has happy citizens and unhappy ones. It has opportunity and economic unfairness. It's inadequate to say San Francisco works for me, or vice versa, as if it were a court verdict.

Sources of pride and of shame can't be added and subtracted to produce a mathematical summation. This is where data-driven companies fall down: Success on a human level is not a graph pointing upward. The satisfaction of the majority of Amazon workers – if that can be assumed – doesn't negate the dissatisfaction of the minority. Let Amazon be judged by how it treats the least among its workers.

Bezo's response shouldn't be what amounts to "I don't see it. Email me if you do," as if someone had reported a unicorn in the cafeteria. It should be "Show it to me, so we can fix it."

Amazon should start by taking a look at the company's lack of paternity leave. Is that really a policy Amazon can defend?

Amazon has succeeded as a technology company. But succeeding as a decent company is harder still. Public companies optimize for shareholder value. They have yet to agree upon, let alone adopt, a metric for social responsibility or generosity toward employees.