Amazon and Media Culture

By now you have probably read more than enough about the NY Times article which described Amazon’s hard driving culture. This was followed by the obligatory articles/posts with employees both confirming and disagreeing with the original. Lastly, there was the necessary, PR driven response by the CEO. By the way, I thought it was funny how he asked people to talk to HR if they were having bad experiences when an HR executive was quoted in the original article. I can only imagine how those conversations would go.

How can so many have such different opinions about culture in one organization?

Culture is an average of opinion and a large group of people can even interpret the “facts” of an organization differently. For instance, take long work hours.

“They work us like dogs here—I can’t spend enough time with my family.”

“I get to work on game changing technologies. It’s the most valuable thing I can do with my time.”

In response to criticism, the NY Times said that they interviewed 100 people. I’m sure that’s true. But, unless they were randomly selected (and they randomly chose to talk the Times), it is possible that they have biased sample. That is not to say there aren’t 100 or more people who feel that Amazon has a toxic culture, but that’s about 1% of the white collar workforce and there are likely to be other opinions.

Assuming the culture is negative (even reading the “positives” didn’t make me want to ship off my resume), why do people stay? I’m sure there are as many reasons as people working there, but it is likely that some of it is for having a “star” on a resume, the pride in working for such a well known brand, the assumption that the grass is just as brown at other companies, relationships with co-workers, etc.

The response also shows a white collar/blue collar bias in the reporting. Right now, there are firefighters all over the west working non-stop. Whether or not you think protecting houses and forests is more important than having drones deliver packages, both sets of workers are giving their all to do their jobs the best that they can. One group is portrayed as heroes and the others as suckers, even though aspects of their culture are not dissimilar (working really long hours in adverse conditions). I’m guessing that employees in both sometime wished they were someplace else, but they still stick with what they are doing.

Some people are a great fit for Amazon’s (or the firefighter) culture. It’s important to understand those critical aspects of your culture so you select people who have the skills to do the work and the personality to want to do it at your company. How much have you thought about that?

For more information on selecting the right people for your culture, contact Warren Bobrow.

HR and Unintended Consequences

At an intellectual level we all realize that HR is part of a bigger system and we know (hope) that decisions we make have impact beyond letting people know that some administrative change is taking place. But, how much appreciation do we have for the potential far reaching consequences of new policies?

A case in point was the decision by a company in Seattle to make their minimum salary $70,000 per year (read about it here). I’d prefer not to debate the wisdom of the decision or the politics of raising the minimum wage. What I do find interesting isn’t so much the backlash from some in the business community as the unintended consequences within the company.

Like it or not, salary confirms status and changes to it are thought to reflect the value people bring to the company. So, if an entire group of people gets a raise to the same level, it can be interpreted as the company as saying that every employee brings equal value, which is unlikely. Of course, another view is, “We’re setting a new starting line. After that, raises will be merit based.”

The company experienced some issues with senior staff. Some began to ask, “Why should people who don’t contribute as much as I do suddenly make nearly as much as me?” The article doesn’t measure total compensation (do higher level managers get stock options that the $70,000 employees don’t?), but again how we see that self-worth is linked to salary. Employees definitely consider how much they are paid compared to others and compute their version of internal pay equity.

I suspect that the most surprising consequence was the impact the decision made on customers. Some ranged from sensing a socialist plot (which I thought was a strange comment given that a for profit company was making a business decision of what to do with their capital) to very libertarian (“He takes care of his business, and I’ll take care of my business.”). This tells us that corporate policies often leak through our four walls. We are used to having this impact second hand. For instance, policies that lead to higher engagement lead to better service. But, customers who learn about compensation and other policies wonder how those will affect them (how will this affect my costs and service?).

This case is instructive in that it teaches us to consider the effects of HR decisions on large systems. These systems not only include employees not directly affected by the change, but also customers and suppliers. Organizations do not operate in a vacuum and we should not forget that.

For more information on planning and implementing change, contact Warren Bobrow.

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