Updated below with response from The New York Times, which stands by its story and says former employee Bo Olson disputes Amazon’s portrayal of his departure.
A former Amazon employee who provided the most memorable quote in a widely read New York Times story — about seeing nearly every person he worked with cry at their desk — had resigned from the company after an internal investigation “revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records,” says Amazon exec Jay Carney in a new response to the piece.
“When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately,” writes Carney about former employee Bo Olson. Carney asks why New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor “never found the time, or inclination, to ask us about the credibility of a named source whose vivid quote would serve as a lynchpin for the entire piece.”
That’s one of the examples cited by Carney, the former journalist and White House press secretary, in his post on Medium this morning challenging the New York Times’ reporting on multiple fronts.
In each case, the details provided by Amazon relate to former employees who were named in the New York Times piece, not those quoted anonymously.
Even so, the post is an unusual step for any company to take, indicating that Amazon is still feeling the sting from the story more than two months later. It’s especially unusual for Amazon, which is known for keeping its head down and forging ahead in the face of external criticism. Jeff Bezos is famous for saying that the company is “willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time.”
But this is the type of story that can have a real impact on recruiting — a critical factor these days given Amazon’s rapid growth and big ambitions.
Bezos himself responded in an internal memo after the story came out, “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.” But the post by Carney, who was hired by Amazon earlier this year as senior vice president of global corporate affairs, provides new details in an effort to bolster Amazon’s case against the story.
For example, Carney’s piece cites examples of positive feedback given to employees who complained to the Times about being targeted unfairly in performance reviews and the company’s internal feedback tool.
In addition, he points to a post by another former employee who was quoted in the piece about long work hours. The former employee, Dina Vaccari, said in her follow-up post, “No one ever forced me to do this — I chose it and it sucked at the time but in no way was I asked or forced by management to do this.”
“What we do know is, had the reporters checked their facts, the story they published would have been a lot less sensational, a lot more balanced, and, let’s be honest, a lot more boring,” writes Carney in the post this morning. “It might not have merited the front page, but it would have been closer to the truth.”
Carney also takes the extraordinary step of publishing an email sent by Kantor to Amazon’s vice president of public relations, Craig Berman, after visiting Amazon as part of her reporting on the story. Here is the message as quoted this morning in Carney’s post.
Craig, it was a real pleasure to meet with you last week. Thinking back, I hope I accomplished two things in particular. The first was to convey that this story will express that Amazon has a somewhat counterintuitive theory of management that really works, in both a results-oriented way and a “there is evidence that what makes people really happy in the workplace is productivity, responsibility and accomplishment, not free organic lunches” way. While we were talking, I also realized that you were envisioning a story that is basically a stack of negative anecdotes from ex-Amazonians. But if we were using that story form, we’d just come to you for responses and be done. As I said, this article is more of an inquiry into the nature of work, which is why we’re trying to get you to share your point of view as well as positive material — to get anecdotes and quotes from you into the story that says “here’s why we do things this way, here’s what we’ve learned, here’s what works for us.” This isn’t a trick to get you to share material that we can easily undercut — we find it genuinely compelling.
Carney writes in his post, “We decided to participate by sharing much of what Ms. Kantor asked for, yet the article she specifically said they were not writing became the article that we all read. And, despite our months-long participation, we were given no opportunity to see, respond to, or help fact-check the ‘stack of negative anecdotes’ that they ultimately used.”
GeekWire has contacted Kantor and her co-author David Streitfeld (who moderated a panel on Amazon at our recent GeekWire Summit) to see if they’d like to comment or respond to Carney’s post. We’ve also sent a message seeking comment from Bo Olson, the former employee whom Carney says resigned after being confronted with evidence of defrauding suppliers.
In an interview with GeekWire in August, Kantor said she believed the story was more balanced than it was being given credit for. Here’s what she told us.
One thing that I really struggle with, in the course of doing these stories, is that there seems to be parts of the stories that people see, and parts of the stories that people don’t see. So there were long portions of the story that were written to reflect the things that people were really enthusiastic about with Amazon. We described what employees said about the culture of innovation and the customer focus. The fact that relatively junior employees can do pretty big things. A lot of Amazonians say that they love how committed their colleagues are. Somebody said to me in the course of reporting, this is the only place where I’ve worked where you don’t look around a conference room and say, “How did that guy get hired?” We describe projects like Prime Now, which was a very exciting release, and showed Amazon’s ability to put things together very quickly, without a lot of red tape, and to launch them at scale.
Everybody kind of goes to the most negative material very quickly. I understand why that is. The negative material is very troubling. We documented cases like the woman who had the still-born child who wasn’t given time to grieve and was instead pressured on her performance. But I do sort of feel like the story attempted to portray the best of Amazon.
Carney notes in his post this morning that Amazon “presented the Times with our findings several weeks ago, hoping they might take action to correct the record. They haven’t, which is why we decided to write about it ourselves.”
Update, 10 a.m.: New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet responded to Carney on Monday morning with his own post on Medium, defending the original NYT story and the reporting that went into it. As part of his point-by-point rebuttal, he says this about Bo Olson, the former Amazon employee whom Carney says resigned after being confronted with evidence of defrauding suppliers:
Olson described conflict and turmoil in his group and a revolving series of bosses, and acknowledged that he didn’t last there. He disputes Amazon’s account of his departure, though. He told us today that his division was overwhelmed and had difficulty meeting its marketing commitments to publishers; he said he and others in the division could not keep up. But he said he was never confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, nor did he admit to that.
If there were criminal charges against him, or some formal accusation of wrongdoing, we would certainly consider that. If we had known his status was contested, we would have said so.
GeekWire checked King County Court records in Seattle this morning but we have not yet found any court cases involving Olson. We’ve also asked Amazon if the company referred the case to law enforcement.
Baquet says, “The points in today’s posting challenge the credibility of four of the more than two dozen named current or former Amazon employees quoted in the story or cast doubt on their veracity. The information for the most part, though, did not contradict what the former employees said in our story; instead, you mostly asserted that there were no records of what the workers were describing. Of course, plenty of conversations and interactions occur in workplaces that are not documented in personnel files.”
The New York Times editor adds later:
We have reviewed notes from Ms. Kantor’s communications with your team. The topics discussed relatively early on included Amazon’s reputation as a difficult place to work, social cohesion, complaints of a culture of criticism and other worker concerns that were emerging from the reporting.
I should point out that you said to me that you always assumed this was going to be a tough story, so it is hard to accept that Amazon was expecting otherwise.
As I said in the beginning, this story was based on dozens of interviews. And any reading of the responses leaves no doubt that this was an accurate portrait.
Read Baquet’s full post here.
Update, 12:15 p.m.: Carney has responded to Baquet’s response to Carney’s original post from Monday morning — is your head spinning yet? — with six more paragraphs that again question the credibility of the Times’ reporting.
“The bottom line is the New York Times chose not to fact-check or vet its most important on-the-record sources, despite working on the story for six months,” Carney wrote in the new post. “I really don’t see a defensible explanation for that failure.”
Again addressing the topic of Olson, Carney wrote that “the reason the Times’ reporters didn’t know the circumstances of his departure from Amazon is because they didn’t bother to ask — despite the fact that they were using his quote to set the tone for their entire 5,600-word article.”