Amazon Workplace Culture and Rethinking the Data-Rules-All Philosophy

Hatchet Job or Not, New York Times Article Should Inspire Balance in How Data Affects Business Decisions

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An Amazon distribution center in the U.S.
An Amazon distribution center in the U.S. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The positive impact of data analysis for creating business efficiencies is indisputable, right? Perhaps, but the front-page Sunday New York Times exposé of Amazon's workplace culture -- a culture that's quantified by countless measures -- muddies the clarified waters we're told will flow from the data stream. The lengthy, and some would say lopsided, piece is strewn with damning anecdotes involving ulcer-inducing pressure to work at full-force at all hours, memorize recent performance metrics at the risk of being called "stupid," and worse, value Amazon's mission over physical health and family commitments.

"But in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. 'The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff," said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer."

The Times said it interviewed more than 100 current and former employees for the story.

"Amazon employees are held accountable for a staggering array of metrics, a process that unfolds in what can be anxiety-provoking sessions called business reviews, held weekly or monthly among various teams. A day or two before the meetings, employees receive printouts, sometimes up to 50 or 60 pages long, several workers said. At the reviews, employees are cold-called and pop-quizzed on any one of those thousands of numbers."

One result is the regular culling of employees deemed ineffectual, according to co-worker feedback (provided via a secret messaging system) and department metrics. The overarching thesis here is that Amazon over-values data and metrics, forsaking the humanity that most of us hope to be a part of work-life.

"Even if it's rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero," said Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos in an email sent to all Amazon staff.

An Amazon employee refutes the Times story in a LinkedIn post that's gone viral. Nick Ciubotariu, head of infrastructure development for Amazon's search division, calls the story "a hatchet piece." He selects several points made in the article and uses his own personal experience to deny and rebut them.

Call it click-bait crafted by overzealous journalists, as implied by Mr. Ciubotariu, or a balanced and solidly reported reflection of reality at Amazon. Either way, the article should inspire us to question the value of decisions based entirely on data to create business efficiencies at the expense of human empathy and the arguable imperfections that can benefit any organization or project.

Said a former employee in the original piece, "It will only change if the data says it must -- when the entire way of hiring and working and firing stops making economic sense."

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