Do Amazon's employees suffer in a cruel, ultra-competitive, cult-like dystopian nightmare of a workplace? Or are Amazon employees "having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way," as Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in an internal company memo recently?
This is the debate that's been sparked by a brutal company expose in the New York Times over the weekend. The portrayal showed a Darwinian, data-driven company seriously lacking in empathy, with backstabbing colleagues and harsh punishments for employees who allowed their personal lives to get in the way of work.
Certainly, Amazon didn't come out sounding like a kind environment in which to work. Yet as a Bloomberg story noted, Jeff Bezos has emphasized the importance of kindness in the past. In his 2010 commencement speech at Princeton, Bezos told a story cited in the New York Times article, about how at the age of 10 he used data to show his grandmother that her smoking habit had taken nine years off her life. The Times used this anecdote to demonstrate Bezos's devotion to data, but when you read the full Princeton speech, the larger point is that, in fact, there are more important things than being good with math.
Instead of being applauded for his brains, Bezos was given a word of caution from his grandfather, whose wife was driven to tears by her grandson's arithmetic. "Jeff, one day you'll understand that it's harder to be kind than clever," Bezos's grandfather told him.
What's more, Bezos ended his speech with a series of questions posed to the new grads, each one explicitly pointing out that there's a right and wrong way to conduct oneself. The last question is this: "Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?"
Some of the Amazon workers interviewed in the Times piece clearly think that some of their colleagues—and perhaps the company structure itself—focus on cleverness at the expense of others over kindness. That's why Jeff Bezos is so upset, and why he responded to the company's depiction in the article by saying, it “doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”