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Jeff Bezos has instituted a hard-charging workplace culture that doesn’t always bring smiles to the faces of employees.

Amazon.com is transforming Seattle like no other company, but you don’t hear much about what happens inside the walls of the secretive 21-year-old Internet titan.

Non-disclosure agreements, combined with a culture that frowns on public appearances or comments, lead to a company that’s both mysterious and, some say, misunderstood.

FOLLOW-UP: An Amazonian’s data-driven response to the NYT’s story about Amazon’s ‘bruising workplace’

That’s why this New York Times piece — titled Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace — is such an important read for those who want to learn more about a company that’s not only recreating Seattle but rattling the global business landscape.

The picture inside Amazon?

Invigorating, innovative and fast-moving.

But also punishing, back-stabbing and terrifying.

It’s an environment where workers are frequently driven to tears, others are weeded out after encountering medical issues, and a competitive stack-rank system encourages employees to undermine one another.

At least that’s the portrayal in the in-depth exposé in The New York Times by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, which depicts Amazon as a grinding workplace that spits out those who can’t keep up or don’t fit in.

Liz Pearce, who previously worked at Amazon, said people would practically combust from the pressure. Photo via Leslie McDaniel.
Liz Pearce, who previously worked at Amazon, said people would practically combust from the pressure. Photo via Leslie McDaniel.

Seattle entrepreneur Liz Pearce, who previously worked at Amazon for a short stint, is quoted as saying that the pressure would build to the point where people would practically “combust.”  Those who adapt to the system and excel are dubbed “Amabots,” while outsiders dub those who’ve worked in the hard-charging environment as “Amholes.”

Kantor and Streitfeld, who interviewed more than 100 current and former Amazon employees for the piece, spend a good amount of time detailing the 14 leadership principles espoused by Jeff Bezos and other senior leaders, discussing those at length to describe how Amazon is creating a new type of white collar workplace.

Those traits also were discussed in this GeekWire piece from earlier this year when Amazon.com senior vice president Jeff Wilke spoke at Seattle University. (See: The peculiar traits of great Amazon leaders: Frugal, innovative and body odor that doesn’t smell like perfume)

But the piece in the NYT goes much further, stepping beyond the words in the principles to detail how the culture impacts employees. Kantor and Streitfeld write:

Even many Amazonians who have worked on Wall Street and at start-ups say the workloads at the new South Lake Union campus can be extreme: marathon conference calls on Easter Sunday and Thanksgiving, criticism from bosses for spotty Internet access on vacation, and hours spent working at home most nights or weekends.

And the piece postulates that Amazon is especially tough for female employees, detailing several accounts of women who were passed over or forced to leave after dealing with serious medical issues or having children.

Stories like the ones told in The New York Times are not uncommon for those who hang around Amazon, or know folks who work there. We’ve often heard the culture and work environment described in the same way — fast-moving, unforgiving and brutal. It’s certainly not for everyone, one of the reasons why the turnover rate is so high.

Kantor and Streitfeld write:

The rivalries at Amazon extend beyond behind-the-back comments. Employees say that the Bezos ideal, a meritocracy in which people and ideas compete and the best win, where co-workers challenge one another “even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting,” as the leadership principles note, has turned into a world of frequent combat.

We’ve reached out to Amazon.com about the piece in the NYT, and we’ll update with a statement if they provide one.

amazonemployment

The special report comes at a time of unprecedented growth for Amazon, which now employs more than 183,000 people worldwide and 24,000 people in Washington state. The company is expanding beyond Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood with a new multi-block complex on the northern edge of downtown Seattle, which will bring its total workforce capacity in the city to upwards of 50,000 people.

Tensions are rising in Seattle, and much of the ire is turning toward Amazon, with some arguing that the city can’t support the company from an infrastructure standpoint.

The piece in the NYT raises additional questions of the cultural impact of having more “Amholes” or “Amabots” living here, and how that will change the city going forward.

Protesters at the Amazon annual meeting
Protesters at the Amazon annual meeting

After all, if you devote everything to Amazon — 80-hour weeks and on-call to put out fires on weekends and holidays — there’s not much time left to get civically-engaged, spend time with family or participate in philanthropy.

Amazon has always kept to itself in its hometown, striking an odd pose in a progressive city that’s spawned companies like Costco and Starbucks, or engineering centers for recent arrivals like Google, Facebook and Twitter that toss an endless array of amenities and benefits to employees.

Amazon’s peculiar style and culture will continue to have a big impact on the city. It does not seem to be changing, and Bezos appears to be digging in with his leadership principles even as the company grows and becomes more entrenched in the middle of the city.

No matter whether you think that impact is good or bad on Seattle or the people who live here, the piece in The New York Times is worth chewing on for a bit, especially if you want to apply for one of the more than 4,500 positions Amazon now has open in Seattle.

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