An analysis of Jeff Bezos’s email to Amazon staff

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Orde...

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos starts his High Order Bit presentation. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The following is an analysis of Jeff Bezos’s email to his staff after a New York Times article criticized the company and its culture. The email reveals more about Bezos than he realizes. It is worth understanding the full extent of its meaning. The email can be found at this site.[1]

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

The phrase “Very long”, means it is too long and not frugal, which is a leadership principle.  The Amazonian’s response, which Bezos lauds, says that executives would not read a memo longer than 6 pages. [2]

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu

Bezos does not realize that the post is actually critical. Three times Nick says “It may have been that way in the past but it is ok now.”[3] So, when did it change? How does he know it changed? He has been there 14 months. Has he heard rumours? Moreover, he said he knew of the stories before he was hired. More to the point, why does Bezos not refer to a changed culture and explain how it changed and why it changed. Finally, the Amazonian’s response is also curious as it fails to discuss a controversial topic, the Organisational Level Ranking (aka rank and yank)[4]

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes

Except these are not anecdotes, they are episodes and painful experiences. These are people. This is what happened to them. To consider these employee experiences as “anecdotes”  diminishes them and implicitly dismisses them.

describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems.

One searches in vain for the word empathy within Amazon[5]. The only time empathy is mentioned is in the behaviour towards customers.[6] What is curious is that Bezos does not dispute the claims by the employees. He does not say whether he has checked if they were true. Why? Why has he not called the people in question and asked their side of the story? He does not know. He does not have the data. For a data driven company and a leader who proclaims that Amazonians will drill deep into a problem, this is surprising. An alternative view is that he knows the data to be true and is not willing to dispute it.

The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.

As a CEO that is protected and insulated, who says no to Jeff? How many times has he received negative feedback? What is his critical upwards communications (CUC) system to sense check what is happening on the ground floor?[7] For all its metrics about customers, he appears to know very little about his employees. Can he claim to know anything about the life of frontline workers except what managers tell him? They are all worried about negative feedback so why should they pass bad news up to him? His word is law. Everything drops when Jeff wants something fixed.

But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR.

This ignores the point that HR is the problem. They are supporting these decisions and not resisting them. They are the bureaucrats to enable the punishment. They are not pushing back.

You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

Needs to be zero? Is it zero or is it not? Also why are you asking people to email you? (This redirects to a message that says “Your email has been redirected”) If Bezos was interested in this issue, he would call the people in the article and find out for himself. Bezos does not care about his staff. A true leader like General Joseph Stillwell does that. After his forces were defeated by the Japanese he walked several hundred miles out of Burma with them. He did not fly out. He did not say “email me your concerns”.[8]

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes.

Earlier, he had said it only contains anecdotes. Which is it? Is it anecdotes if it about people and claims if it is about the company?

It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.

The article never makes that point. Nowhere in the article does it say this. Why make this dramatic point? What is curious is that this is what Bezos believes about his own company based on what he has read. The article does say that the company wants to get as much out of its white collar workers and it suggests that the implicit strategy is that they are replaced with the next batch of willing recruits. Working at Amazon is almost like a tour of combat, where veterans are cycled out of work and new recruits, willing to endure anything for a pay-check, arrive to feed the dream. If they do not like it, they can leave. The question is: Why work there in the first place?

Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. Here the language is telling. Bezos does not know. He can only hope. Why does he not know what is going on in his company? It is not as if this is the first time he has received such a public complaint. Consider this open letter from 2013.[9]

More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.

This sounds sincere, except that it is betrayed by Jay Carney’s defence a few days later and the Amazonian’s defence. Amazon has a high turn over rate, Carney says everyone has this, and it betrays their business model, which relies on temporary contracts.[10] One could argue that Amazon succeeds on churn and burn. A few senior people stay with the company and the rest are churned through.

The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

This is true and it is why so many people leave. The turnover rate in 2013 (last data that was available) was one of the highest in America. [11]

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

The statement sounds bold and yet it is hollow. Bezos does not have to leave because he never experiences his company as an employee. He experiences it as the founder and leader. He is insulated and nurtured. The company, and his structure, exist for him. He is like an ancient tyrant for whom the city exists.[12]

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

We note that Bezos mentions hopefully twice. It is the third time in the letter he uses hope. The term suggests he does not know if they are having fun, everyone seems to be having fun around him. Everyone is always smiling and laughing around Kim Jung Un.[13] Bezos is concerned about what will happen. He may face an employee revolt. What will happen to his business model if he does not get the willing recruits to his churn and burn system? What happens if he cannot get someone who is willing to sacrifice friends and family to deliver a doll in 23 minutes? He can only hope that he can automate everything so that he does not have to worry about employees. He can then focus on the numbers and hopefully not have to write another email like this one.

Thank you,

Jeff

What is clear is that Bezos never once apologises for the way the staff were treated. He has not apologized in part because that is not what Amazon culture does. You put up or leave. Yet, if the culture had changed, the leader would apologise and promise to fix things.[14] However, this is not an apology email, this is an email to reassure the staff and to manage the company’s (and the leader’s) image.

 

What we see is a leader who is out of touch with his employees and one who lacks empathy for their plight. If he had called those ex-employees and listened to their stories and found out for himself what was happening, then we could say Amazon has changed. The reality is that he will not do that because he does not care. If it is done, it will be done by an HR professional. At best, the email shows a poor PR exercise. At worst, it shows the extent to which Bezos has been inconvenienced by an article that makes him start to recognize something about his company and himself.

[1] http://www.geekwire.com/2015/full-memo-jeff-bezos-responds-to-cutting-nyt-expose-says-tolerance-for-lack-of-empathy-needs-to-be-zero/

[2] “I have never seen a 50-60 page document – that is not Frugal in terms of time spent, and certainly would not be encouraged. In a sad and continued pattern of setting the record straight with this article, most Amazonians and especially Executives insist that written material adhere to at “6 pages or less” rule.” The hidden irony is that Nick’s article is over 6200 words long. For an article that is 6200 commentary to claim that the original (just over 6700 words) was TL;DR (Too Long Didn’t Read) is unintentionally funny.

[3] “When I interviewed at Amazon, I heard all the horror stories from the past. They’re actually pretty well known in Seattle. I was told they were true, that the company continues to take steps to make things better, and that work-life balance was taken seriously”

“If Amazon used to be this way (and it most likely was, as you’ll see in the quote below), from my 18 month experience working in two of its biggest product groups, that Amazon no longer exists”

“The Amazon described in this article may have existed, in the past. Certainly, I’ve heard others refer to “how things used to be” but it is definitely not the Amazon of today.”

If things have changed, when did they change?

[4] “I won’t discuss Organizational Level Ranking, or OLR.”

[5] Empathy is certainly not an Amazon principle http://www.amazon.jobs/principles

[6] “Strong customer and stakeholder empathy.” On the Amazon jobs page 18 jobs mention this term. See for example http://www.amazon.jobs/jobs/335422/senior-product-manager-alexa

[7] Denish Tourish’s excellent article is found here: https://openair.rgu.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/10059/190/LRPpaper1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y Bezos has not followed rules 4 Managers should seek out opportunities for regular formal and informal contact with staff at all levels. and 10. The CEO, in particular, needs to openly model a different approach to the receipt of critical communication , and ensure that senior colleagues emulate this openness

[8] “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back and retake it.”.

[9] http://www.geekwire.com/2013/open-letter-jeff-bezos-contract-workers-amazoncom/

[10] “The story is sort of based on the idea that there’s high turnover and attrition, but the facts are that the attrition, people leaving, cycling in and out of this company, is completely consistent with other major companies in the United States.” http://www.politico.com/story/2015/08/new-york-times-amazon-jay-carney-jeff-bezos-defend-121425.html#ixzz3jRo4OQcV

[11] See http://www.ibtimes.com/amazoncom-has-second-highest-employee-turnover-all-fortune-500-companies-1361257 and

http://www.payscale.com/data-packages/employee-loyalty/full-list

[12] See for example, see Xenophon’s Hiero.

[13] http://smilewithkimjongun.tumblr.com/

[14] For a good example of a corporate apology letter see Tesco’s apology letter for horsemeat. https://thoughtmanagement.org/2013/01/20/tesco-horsemeat-and-how-to-write-an-apology-letter/

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
This entry was posted in coruption, culture, leadership, management and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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