Swallows and Amazons

You may have missed it, but the New York Times published an “exposé” of the culture and working practices at online retailer Amazon at the weekend. If you did miss it, then you can find it here. It’s caused quite a furore, with lots of condemnation of Amazon, and company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos having to issue a formal statement in response.

I don’t know anything at all about Amazon’s working conditions and culture. However I can spot emotively manipulative journalism when I see it, and the fact it’s in what is apparently America’s “newspaper of record” doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Let’s leave aside all the “they texted me on Thanksgiving Day” “I saw grown men cry daily*” “I was criticised for having poor wi-fi on holiday” stuff which may be true incidents but are simply anecdotal evidence (*As an aside, presumably women crying at work every day would not be worth reporting since, as we all know, they are over-emotional little creatures). Let’s look instead at the managerial and HR practices that are criticised.

  1. They have leadership values and (shock, horror) actually use them in management and recruitment, rather than leave them as nice words stuck behind a reception desk, where of course they should be.
  2. They encourage feedback from all sections of the workforce on performance. Other companies call this 360 degree appraisal and use it a lot.
  3. They want contributions from all members of staff and expect challenge, regardless of position
  4. They use data to inform their business decisions
  5. They work long hours
  6. They use performance rankings to dismiss staff they deem to be poor performers
  7. Poor performance is managed by performance improvement plans (which according to the article is “Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’”. In a similar vein, the Daily Mail once informed its readers that cloud storage was “not an actual cloud”)

Points 1-4 would be considered as good practice by most HR professionals. If anything the NYT article shows that we should be alive to the ways to which even “good practices” can lead to negative consequences. 5 and 6 are both poor practices but aren’t exclusive to Amazon in any way (even if again, Amazon apparently take them to an extreme). While 7 is again a fairly normal managerial practice in most companies – not an Amazon exclusive “secret code”.

Amazon may have very poor working conditions and an aggressive, over competitive management style. So do many other companies. They may have high turnover and many disgruntled ex-employees. So do many other companies. I’m certainly not defending either the company or poor HR. But why single them out? The old journalistic adage is “follow the money”. The New York Times’s major rival as a “newspaper of record” is The Washington Post. Who owns The Washington Post? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.