I read with fascination the New York Times’ recent article, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” which portrays the ecommerce giant as an employer that demands long hours, creates “unreasonably” high standards and is lacking in empathy and compassion toward its employees.
According the article, “Workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are 'unreasonably high.' The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”
I read with even greater fascination the social-media explosion surrounding the New York Times’ story. Comments such as these are all over the Internet: “I cannot support a company that so purposefully creates a negative environment for its employees,” or “Amazon’s culture is nothing short of tyrannical oligarchy.”
Let’s catch our collective breaths. Amazon is a groundbreaking innovator. The company is a success on many levels. The only way Amazon could have achieved such stunning success is by developing a properly-designed culture aligned to its mission. Culture simply is the convergence of the right people and the right processes working in harmony. For Amazon, its unique culture has clearly allowed it to accomplish its mission.
All of the comments expressing outrage over Amazon’s culture have completely missed the point. Amazon’s practices are working quite well for the company and apparently for those employees who like working in such an environment. It's a culture that rewards innovation, long hours and purposeful conflict.
I personally would never adopt some of Amazon’s purported practices in a company that I lead, such as implying that beginning a family will limit one’s career, ignoring employee health issues and not being sensitive to critical family needs. But as long as Amazon is in compliance with the law, my opinion about how Amazon should operate does not matter and neither does the opinion of anyone else sitting on the sidelines.
The real message of the Amazon article is that it’s a free country. Each of us is free to seek an employer whose culture and business are most aligned with our personal values, skills and desires. If an individual is just looking for a “job,” they are likely to find an employer where the technical requirements match up. And that’s about the only thing that will match. I don’t hire employees who are looking for a “job.” I hire employees who have the proper technical skills and who fit our company’s culture and value system.
The lesson for job seekers.
I am as unlikely as Amazon to change my secret ingredient: culture. I believe that most entrepreneurs would agree. The New York Times’ article really is a reminder that employees must take control of their own destinies. To accomplish this, employees must be more purposeful in how they seek their employers. A smart prospect interviews the employer as much as the employer interviews the prospect.
As reported in the New York Times’ article, Amazon tells new employees what they are signing up for on the first day of orientation. There should be no surprises. If working in an environment such as Amazon's is not appealing to a job seeker, next time they prepare for an interview, they should be prepared to ask the interviewer questions that might indicate the potential for a good long-term match, such as:
- Tell me about the best thing that has happened to you at this company. Why do you value it so much?
- Tell me about the biggest challenge you encountered while working here? How was it handled and overcome?
- Describe a team project that you worked on. Were the expectations communicated? What were some of the challenges encountered by the team?
- Help me understand your company’s (or team’s) single biggest challenge, and how could I contribute to the solution?
- How is success defined, recognized and rewarded?
- Tell me about the individual(s) who previously held this position.
Questions such as these will allow management and candidates to engage in a discussion -- not a one-way interrogation. This will allow both parties to determine the potential for an excellent long-term fit. For most positions, there are a myriad of candidates where technical skills will match. The list is infinitely smaller when finding a good cultural fit.
If a new hire finds themselves working for an employer that is not a good fit, they have to take control. Acting like the victim and going home miserable every night make no sense. They need to work with the employer to address the pain points. If the situation cannot be fixed, the individual is accountable for his or her own destiny. Either he or she can chose to be miserable or leave the employer, wiser and more focused on finding a better career fit.
I know that some people may be thinking: “This is all easy to say, but I need to earn a living and put food on the table. I can’t just leave my miserable job.” This is just an excuse for not taking control of the future. It is each person's responsibility to develop a plan to make a move. Get that degree. Build that network. Do the homework. People are happier knowing that there is a plan in place and are taking control.
Career happiness and fulfillment are in no one’s hands but the individual's.
Now, go back and reread the Amazon article and ask: Is the issue really about Amazon, or is it about the need for each of us to take greater control of our destinies and be strategic about who we hire or where we elect to invest our time and careers?