What the Amazon culture means

The recent controversy surrounding Amazon's "brutal" workplace is missing some critical points about corporate culture.

amazon workplace culture

The recent New York Times piece about Amazon's 'punishing' and 'bruising' workplace has generated heated conversation about culture and values in Silicon Valley and the IT industry as a whole. But all the outrage over the exposé is missing some crucial data points in the discussion about culture.

Culture does not have a set definition

If the furor over Amazon's "bruising" and "punishing" work environment teaches us one thing, it's that "culture," while an important benchmark in attracting, hiring and retaining elite talent, is not a one-size-fits all proposition. Culture means different things to different people, and it varies widely in its interpretation from company to company.

Culture is more than just foosball tables, Wine Wednesdays and casual dress. It's about what your company prioritizes and how it uses those priorities to compete in its marketplace. That's why, faced with an incredibly competitive talent market and a widening skills gap, many organizations turn to culture interviews to find the best fits so they can reduce attrition and cut costs related to turnover.

"Your company culture should align with your business strategy, with the type of competitive environment you're in and the markets you're trying to reach," says Henry Albrecht, CEO of Seattle-based employee wellness company, Limeade.

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According to Albrecht, Amazon, for example, is ubiquitous and they have to have a hard-driving, intense, performance-driven strategy to compete in all the markets they do. They compete with likes of Wal-Mart, Microsoft and Rackspace. "That's a lot of different irons in the fire," says Albrecht. "Their culture is in line with their vision, their markets and their strategy and is very consistent with their business drivers. So is ours, but our culture is very different because our customers are different."

Write your own cultural narrative

A well-defined culture is a signpost meant to attract candidates that thrive within the type of environment you create, or at least the type of environment you intend to create, and to a great extent, that is shaped by your technology, your markets and your customers. But it's also shaped internally by C-level executives and by those responsible for hiring. You have to define your culture, illustrate what success looks like for those who might want to work within that culture, and clearly set out the boundaries and expectations of work, culture and environment within your company before it takes on a life of its own.

A clear definition of your company culture is going to deter some highly qualified talent while attracting others. The point of making culture relevant to recruiting and hiring decisions is to better gauge whether or not a job seeker is going to thrive within the organization, and whether they share the same mission and values above and beyond their ability to perform certain tasks or master certain skills. It's not fool-proof; there will be some false positives, hires who don't fit -- and some false negatives, those you don't hire who would have been great.

"This looks like churn, but it's not. This is what happens when workers experience a culture and say, 'This is not for me.' The culture that's so maligned at Amazon is actually something Bezos has been clear about since the beginning, and it's been successful, so I don't think there's reason to change it. In fact, I think you double-down on it -- celebrate this culture, create more stories about it and point to more examples that truly embody it. You have to write your own narrative," says Marcus Buckingham, an author, talent management expert, researcher, founder and chairman of The Marcus Buckingham Company.

Keep tabs on your culture

Writing your own narrative requires deep insight into what's working at your organization, what's not, and how to fix it. This is the great irony of Amazon's public relations nightmare -- how could a company so focused on listening to customer voices miss the grumbling of discontent within its own ranks? "These surprises happen in every company, they just tend to happen much more frequently the bigger you get. You have to be looking at the feedback loops throughout the entire organization, not just those from your peer group," says Albrecht.

Even in a small organization where the CEO has an open door policy, communication breakdowns can happen, says Chris Byers, CEO of Formstack, a digital forms solution and data collection company. Transparency is a great goal for organizations to have, but it's difficult to maintain as a business grows; employees might not feel emboldened to walk into the CEO's office and share what's on their mind. "If the door is open but no one comes through, you can't just think, 'Well, everything must be fine,' it's up to you to go out the door and solicit feedback, or you risk missing an issue that could blow up like it did with Amazon," Byers says.

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Technology that provides insights into engagement, health, well-being and productivity is one way to gather data. Amazon's anonymous Anytime Feedback tool was supposed to have filled this role. "Bezos should have been able to say to The New York Times, 'You have these anecdotes, we have the data,' but he doesn't have it. That's the great irony here. And it's a lesson: Leadership needs to know the real-time, reliable measures of engagement within their companies," says Buckingham.

Culture does not have a moral value judgment

There's no such thing as "good" culture or "bad" culture, necessarily (though a toxic, abusive workplace is definitely bad news). Just as different businesses define success differently, each company's culture is unique because of its specialized technology, its customer base, its business priorities, strategy and mission. In a highly competitive, fast-evolving industry such as IT, cultural norms like working late nights, on-call weekends and 100-hour-work-weeks are more common than in other industries. There's a much greater emphasis on innovation, change and outside-the-box thinking that drives new products, services and solutions, and your organization's culture has to keep pace.

This particular brand of culture, as with Amazon or throughout Silicon Valley, becomes unsustainable only when your workers lose interest, not because it's inherently good or evil. Limeade's says he Albrecht was miserable working long, brutal hours for another technology firm. However, he works the same number of hours, if not more, at his own company because he loves his work. "If you do it because you care about the mission, you care about the work that's being done, that's one thing. If you're doing it because you feel you 'have to,' then maybe your values and your priorities don't match up with that of the company," he says.

This story, "What the Amazon culture means" was originally published by CIO.

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