Amazon to New York Times: 'Stack of negative anecdotes' doesn't represent Amazon culture

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Two months ago, The New York Times ran a piece on working at Amazon that went on to become its most commented-on story so far, with 6,600 comments by the paper's count. The article depicted a workplace in which 80-hour weeks were common, and work-life balance in short supply. Famously, the reporters cited one former Amazonian who said, "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk." Now, Amazon is responding to that portrait, claiming that the stories included in the article were biased, or presented without context, and that they don't add up to an accurate picture of what it's like to work at Amazon.

"When the story came out, we knew it misrepresented Amazon," writes Jay Carney, Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon, in a post on Medium. "Once we could look into the most sensational anecdotes, we realized why. We 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."

Among Carney's allegations:

  • The former Amazonian who described frequently seeing his co-workers cry resigned in disgrace. Carney says that "his brief tenure at Amazon ended after an investigation revealed he had attempted to defraud vendors and conceal it by falsifying business records. When confronted with the evidence, he admitted it and resigned immediately."
  • The source who said she was "strafed" through the Amazon feedback tool received only three pieces of feedback, all of which included positive statements. Carney also says that the feedback tool isn't anonymous. (While the NYT article didn't claim that it was, the reporters did write, "While bosses know who sends the comments, their identities are not typically shared with the subjects of the remarks.")
  • The worker who described staying up for four days straight while working at Amazon did so of her own volition, in part because she was in graduate school. She provided context in a response, quoted in Carney's piece: "Allow me to be clear: The hours I put in at Amazon were my choice. I was enrolled in the University of Washington's Foster Technology MBA program while I was in charge of building three new Amazon retail categories and going through an emotional breakup when I didn't sleep for those four days. 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."

In general, Carney says, Amazon officials weren't given the chance to comment on "any of the dozen or so negative anecdotes from named sources that form the narrative backbone of the story." He also cites a response to the piece from the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, which reads in part:

"The article was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote. For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn't seem like quite enough."

So, Is Working at Amazon Hell?

Dean Baquet, the Times' executive editor, responded to Sullivan's critique by saying:

"I reject the notion that you can report a story like this in any way other than with anecdotes. You talk to as many people as possible and you draw conclusions. That's the only way to approach it."

Tech companies are famously demanding places to work. A combination of long hours, tight deadlines, and high expectations can combine to ask a lot from employees – the idea being that the payoffs, both monetary and intangible, will make it all worthwhile. The real question is whether Amazon is worse than its competitors.

"Many of Amazon's techniques and policies are common at other tech companies, and other companies in general," Sullivan notes in her discussion of the original article.

"I can't speak firsthand about life inside Amazon, but I spent 10 years working as a software engineer for Microsoft and then Google, both known as fairly demanding, high-intensity workplaces," writes David Auerbach at Slate. "And at least as far as it relates to the experiences of engineers, the Times article gave me little reason to think that Amazon is much worse than the tech companies where I've been employed."

It may all come down to cultural fit. Amazonians who love working at the company are as vocal as those who tell horror stories. For example, Nick Ciubotariu, Head of Infrastructure Development, wrote an impassioned and often-cited defense of his employer on LinkedIn.

Perhaps Amazon has provided the best insight into its culture. In a recruiting video linked to by the Times, a young, female Amazonian says, "You either fit here or you don't. You love it or you don't. There is no middle ground."

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