Connecting Amazon’s “Bruising” Corporate Culture with the Nonprofit Sector

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August 17, 2015; NBC News

The New York Times just published a tough article written by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld about employment practices at Amazon, the Internet bookseller and retail giant owned by Jeff Bezos. The charges, based on interviews with current and former Amazon staff—not a handful here and there, but over 100—describe a brutal work environment and callous management.

The particulars have been well reported in recent days, but they include these:

  • “Workers…encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas at meetings,” causing employees of all sorts to weep at their desks and leading others to stay quiet in meetings because ideas are attacked so harshly.
  • Tips on the Amazon office phone system about how to send secret, anonymous feedback on colleagues to their bosses through the “Anytime Feedback Tool.” The bosses actually know who is doing the reporting, though; it’s the employees being criticized who don’t know who ratted them out (leading to strategies among collaborating employees out to get their colleagues they don’t like).
  • Expectations that workers work excessively long days and weeks, a practice that punishes employees with children and, according to the NYT report, among the many practices that disadvantage women employees at Amazon. One example was a woman with breast cancer “put on a ‘performance improvement plan’—Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’—because ‘difficulties’ in her ‘personal life’ had interfered with fulfilling her work goals.” It’s just one of several stories of Amazon’s lack of support for employees with personal health or family issues.

There are many more examples in the article of a culture described by a former Amazon HR director as “purposeful Darwinism.” One might expect this sort of dystopian culture in Amazon’s warehouses, where getting products out fast means long hours, lots of pressure to meet deadlines, and little employee protection (and pay at abysmal rates of between $10 and $14 an hour), but the Times piece covers the corporate culture of Amazon and the treatment of its management team, making the entire company feel like an office-bound version of the Hunger Games.

Bezos and others at Amazon have challenged the veracity of both the report and the NYT reporters. A Bezos memo to employees has been widely reported on by the press, clearly a memo that was meant to be seen by the press, in which Bezos said he wouldn’t tolerate a “callous” working environment, nor does he think that one exists at Amazon. An Amazon employee named Nick Ciubotariu published (on his own volition, he says) his own defense of his employer and an attack on the NYT article, summarizing the NYT approach as follows:

Step 1: Have bias.

Step 2: Find ex-employees with anecdotal stories that fit in with your bias.

Step 3: Gather old stories and criticism while glossing over changes made to improve on that, and completely ignore that it’s still significantly better than industry practice.

Step 4: Take half-truths and spin spin spin!!

Step 5: Publish article.

There is some relevance to the culture at Amazon and issues within the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Don’t be fooled:

  1. Even if you don’t buy either the NYT criticisms or the defenses from Bezos and Ciubotariu, you certainly know that lots of workplaces are awful despite their grandiose corporate visions—and that includes those in the nonprofit sector. Just look at the employee reviews on Glassdoor concerning employers in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. While some criticisms might be the grumblings of disgruntled ex-employees, many are strikingly articulate and detailed and open to the kind of investigative reporting that the Times deployed upon Amazon. Note that on occasion, NPQ receives the kind of employee-treatment story tip that probably led the Times to Amazon (as opposed to having some sort of pre-existing anti-Amazon bias). More investigation of workplace behavior, especially in fields or at levels where there aren’t labor unions to protect workers’ rights, is warranted, and the debate that results may result in progress—perhaps even Bezos taking a look at his own workplace with eyes a little more open to potential “callousness.”
  2. It would be hard to imagine that the NYT reporters who wrote the Amazon piece just happened to stumble across 100 disgruntled Amazonians, none of whose complaints happened to be true. The reality is that Amazon’s massive growth, now rivaling Walmart in the U.S., has Walmart-like features, including issues around labor policies. This could lead nonprofit attention to Amazon’s labor treatment policies, in the way nonprofit and union organizers once challenged Walmart—­and got Walmart to make at least some changes. It shouldn’t be surprising that on the news shows that covered the Times article, Amazon deployed one of its newest top executives: Jay Carney, the former Obama administration press secretary. Amazon knows that whatever true stories the Times reporters uncovered could damage its business reputation and potential hiring strategies—and possibly invite external scrutiny. Access to an influencer like Carney may be important.
  3. Silicon Valley culture itself may be an issue here. Not only did Bezos and Ciubotariu defend Amazon, but so did many venture capital types and Silicon Valley investors. They defended what they saw in the article as an “intense culture” that, in the words of Josh Elman of the venture capital firm Greylock Partners, “is in many ways winning and innovating.” Elman added, “I’m just feeling the outrage.” Cisco’s Peder Ulander tweeted, “Kudos for not creating a ‘C+ work is acceptable’ culture.” Like many others quoted in a few Amazon-defense articles, Ulander said he knew of no one who didn’t like working at Amazon—without noting the possibility that in the intense, competitive work culture of Amazon, admitting that you don’t like working there because of the organization’s business Darwinism might not work in your favor within the industry. Todd Frankel wrote in the Washington Post that the Silicon Valley defense of Amazon, generally dismissive of the Times article, reflected a “disconnect” between the high tech world and those outside of it. Given the breakneck expansion of philanthropy from the high-tech sector dominating so much of new major philanthropic giving (such as Nicholas Woodman of GoPro, Larry Page of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Pierre Omidyar of eBay, Paul Allen of Microsoft, Michael Dell of Dell Computers, and of course Bill Gates), to what extent are Silicon Valley corporate values—given the rallying of the high tech world to the defense of Bezos—infiltrating the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors? It is interesting to note, for example, that the contributions of the Bezos Family Foundation in 2013 were substantially in the form of donations of Amazon stock, according to the foundation’s Form 990. So nonprofits find themselves tied in this manner to the successful business formula of Amazon, including perhaps its corporate culture. Does the way a firm like Amazon treats its employees, whether in the corporate offices or the warehouses, matter to nonprofits seeking grant support?

Nonprofits aren’t immune from their societal context and the influences of their funders. To the extent that there are glimmers of truth in the New York Times article about Amazon’s corporate culture—and we suspect there’s more truth there than Amazon’s Silicon Valley defenders would ever admit—nonprofits have to consider what messages they want to send up the chain to Bezos and his philanthropic peers about workplace treatment that goes against the values of the nonprofit sector.—Rick Cohen

  • The closest connection that I can see between this story and the non-profit sector is more about external than internal influences (but resulting in policies that are internal). That is “the war on overhead” that continues despite efforts to reverse the trend by some of the wrong-headed “charity oversight” organizations that created the problem in the first place. The constant pressure to reduce “administrative” or “non-program” expenses has the same de facto result on employees as these corporate stories. Someone still has to do the work even if nobody wants to see funding allocated to it. Our sector is expected to be PERFECT with respect to accountability and oversight and yet we are to somehow make it happen at no cost, when we all know that owes mainly to the work of paid professionals who are expected to deliver that perfection in addition to their regular full-time jobs so that the “shame” of spending money on the very necessary work of administration, training, banking, finance, communications, etc. is “off the books” and on to the backs of overworked staff.