Amazon and the ‘Company Culture’ Controversy: Why it Matters to Startups

Amazon and the ‘Company Culture’ Controversy: Why it Matters to Startups

Last week’s New York Times article about Amazon’s cutthroat company culture has sparked a wildfire of debate over just exactly what 2015’s biggest corporate buzz-term consists of. As the discussion expands to the impact of company culture on employees and the businesses they populate on the whole, renewed attention is being drawn to perhaps the most grueling and demanding professional climate of all: the startup world.

Amazon founder & CEO Jeff Bezos is the fifth-richest man in the world. His methodology in getting very most out of every employee, to ensure the velocity of his company’s success, has paid off: Amazon recently became the country’s largest retailer. Their reputation for hard-working employees precedes the NYT piece, but the article outlined the harsh intensity of Amazon’s operations in embarrassing detail: email attentiveness at all hours is required. Vacations are a myth, and weekends exist only as mile markers on the path to success – by no means a time to downshift. If you aren’t working all the time, you’re failing. Amazon’s ranking system regularly purges the low performers, but also factors in how well employees interact. Their employees are reportedly encouraged to send negative feedback about their peers to their bosses, a confidential exchange that pits staff members against one another and creates an air of paranoid hostility.

The list goes on. Amid the flurry of criticism, Bezos and others at Amazon have challenged the spin and professionalism of both the report and the NYT reporters. A Bezos memo to employees following the piece has made the rounds, clearly PR bait: the CEO said he wouldn’t tolerate a “callous” working environment, and doesn’t believe one exists at Amazon. In tandem, Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu published his own defense of his employer as well as a few shots at the NYT article, summarizing the NYT approach as a preconceived hit job against the company.

To Bezos and Ciubotariu’s credit, in a company with so many employees, it is statistically guaranteed that many heartwarming examples of fantastic company-culture experiences can be found within Amazon’s corporate narrative. But to find over 100 employees willing to share tales of woe is uncommon, particularly given that the sample group consists of members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch.

Similarly, startup culture is cutthroat, take-no-prisoners and absolutely hostile to the idea of shared priorities. As a rule, startups do not foster an environment conducive to healthy families, well-rounded childhoods or “quality” personal time. Free food, team games, onsite barbers and other benefits often exist in companies large and small to allow people a break without leaving the office, softening the impact of those grueling 60-to-80 hour work weeks.

Ideal company culture demands a balance between pushing employees to go above and beyond, and allowing a personal sense of worth and vitality within the corporate structure. A company set on long-term development and success requires leadership who can fully understand and pass along its corporate atmosphere and philosophy to other employees. To accomplish this they must be engaging, inspiring and above all, willing to work harder than anyone else.

With 150,000 people on staff, Amazon boasts an army of people mandated to devote their life to their work. Is total sacrifice of personal life on a company-wide scale the most desirable model for success? For those whose life priorities aren’t inextricably topped by fealty to a corporate success story in the making, absolutely not. So where is the middleground? How can a balance be struck while a company struggles to emerge as a leader in its field?

A frequently cited example of great company culture is Google. With an employee count nearing 50,000, it’s remarkable and refreshing to see workers describe operations as having a small-company feel, free of senior-officer intimidation. Company culture is determined by company morality, how it treats others, and there is a direct result in staff morale & motivation. Googlers can be found volunteering directly in company efforts to give back to the community, and lead initiatives around the world with financial aid, restoring public parks and  beyond.

At StackCommerce, we’re striving each day to sharpen the balance between driving success and enriching staff. There’s rarely an amenity unprovided, with the office boasting a stocked kitchen, surfboards and bikes at the ready (the Venice Beach boardwalk is just outside our door), a ping pong table and entertainment lounge in the basement (hell, even a basement in Southern California is a unicorn perk). But these are mere decorative boosts, a handful of bright colors on the tapestry of a company culture that encourages personal wellness through yoga breaks and volleyball games, through enlightening guest speakers and regular happy hour gatherings. Robust benefits, sign-on stock options and encouraged use of personal days provide employees with a sense of security and control over their personal lives – an extreme rarity in startup culture.

Sure, we work our behinds off, often arriving long before the workday begins and leaving long after rush hour has subsided. But those of us making the early-morning rounds are often greeted by wetsuit-clad employees greeting the day with enthusiasm; they want to be here early. They’re invested in a company that’s equally invested in them.

The link between employee happiness and productivity has been documented at great length. Companies cannot thrive on a singular character model of A-type workhorses giving their every waking moment to their employer, with reckless abandon of personal stability. Diversification is essential, creating constellations of different skill sets and different opinions to stay innovative and to continually thrive. Personal and professional values are essential, but this does not mean absolute sacrifice at all times. Company culture must align with personal stability, particularly in the startup world.

Entrepreneur.com‘s Eric Sinou put together a great infographic on the impact of company culture, as well as the perils of being on the wrong side of a corporate atmosphere:

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