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Amazon's Opportunity to Fix Employee Satisfaction - Find the Right Fit

Posted on September 02, 2015

Few news stories have made as big a splash as the recent piece in the New York Times about workplace abuse at Amazon. The company, so recently the object of praise for surpassing Walmart in value to become the world’s largest retailer, found itself in full damage control almost overnight and was caught entirely flat-footed. But, after reading several blog posts, reactions from the public and news sources covering the story, one might be suspect as to who is really at fault in this situation.

For instance, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos reacted to the article with apparent shock. So much so that he responded to the press coverage (something he rarely does). He immediately sent out a company-wide email encouraging his employees to read the NYT article, and stated he was deplored by the “shockingly callous management practices” depicted in the piece. He also said he did not recognize the company described, in his words, as “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”

That being said, how is it that someone who has been so immersed in his organization’s culture for so long be caught this off guard? The answer is simple. Perception.

What might be considered cold and callous to some employees, is not to others. In describing his $250B company’s culture Bezos states, “We are friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove, we’ll settle for intense.” That statement in and of itself should provide some insight into how the company chooses to operate and motivate its employees. We will be friendly, but when we have to, we will work hard no matter what the cost.

Many reading this (likely the same who are sympathetic to the writers of Amazon’s recent backlash) probably read this description and think that they could never work for a company with a mindset like this. We feel the same way.

However, there are plenty of people and personalities that thrive in this environment.

Jim Collins' book "Built to Last" in the late-90s broke apart and inspected the most successful companies of the century to determine what they had in common. What he found was surprising. Successful companies aren't defined by a particular theory on management, whether they're more focused on development of individuals or workers being a cog on the wheel.

Successful companies are defined by a shared vision, shared values and a clearly defined culture.

But to have a better understanding of the type of person who fits well within their organization, it is imperative that leadership regularly takes the pulse of their company and gets a steady supply of information from the “boots on the ground” (front-line staff). Doing this to avoid organizational blind spots, and to really understand what kind of culture has developed.

(Think about the popular CBS show "Undercover Boss)

A Culture of Extreme Competition

Silicon Valley and the Pacific Northwest are hubs of competition for tech startups. New companies pop up, while others crash and burn every day. Only the strong can survive, and it is not for the faint of heart. This is where Amazon got its start, so it is no surprise that at their most core they have a work-first and intense mindset.

Interviews with ex-Amazon employees allege the company encourages a culture of extreme competition among workers, where working 80 plus hours a week without vacation is the norm and co-workers regularly sabotage and “drown [fellow employees] in the deep end of the pool.” Again, to those with a current Anti-Amazon mindset, this might seem cutthroat and cold, but to anyone who has worked for a tech startup on the West Coast, this is sometimes what needs to happen to get the job done. Not always -- but sometimes.

Hiring for Cultural Fit Before Skill

Amazon has a high employee turnover rate with the average tenure at just one year; one of the lowest for a Fortune 500 company. Additionally, only 15 percent of employees have been with the company for more than five years. Because of this Amazon spends a lot of time hiring; engineers in Cambridge spend 30 to 40 percent of their time on recruiting, interviewing and on-boarding new employees.

With all of this time spent on hiring new employees, it may lead one to wonder if they are hiring for skill and experience, or if they are hiring for fit. A prospective employee can be the most proficient, well-educated and skilled person for the job, but if at the end of the day they can’t handle the way the performance reviews are structured, or on weekends they may have to be tuned in to their email, it doesn’t matter because they won’t make it to a one year anniversary.

A part of the problem that many companies struggle with relative to hiring new employees is making sure that they fit the bill before an offer letter is ever extended. At Vocoli, we believe culture fit should be 50% of the decision in hiring the right candidate - with the other 50% being background and skillset. We conduct initial phone screenings, an in-person interview and we have 3-5 of our team members meet and have a Q&A with a prospective employee before we ever extend an offer.

This focus on culture ahead of the resume allows us to get a good feel for who that person is, and if they would be a seamless addition to our team.

As one Amazon engineer even stated in the NYT article, “You either fit here or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. There is no middle ground.” If recruiters and hiring managers are failing to do their homework on the front end, and if prospective employees are failing to ask the right qualifying questions in an interview, than a new hire can easily become a match made in hell.

Opportunity Awaits

It’s surprising that a company seemingly so in touch with meeting the needs of its customers would be so out of touch with its own employees. But these things can happen if vertical communication only travels downward - with executives providing orders and failing to encourage communication to travel upward.

One possible vertical communication channel is a good employee suggestion program. Using the right tool, managers can collect information from rank-and-file employees in an open environment and ensure nothing is lost. Through the use of social media “likes” and commenting, ideas can be highlighted and refined to eventually be presented to upper management who have the power to make it happen.

In addition, leadership can propose "challenges" to crowdsource ideas focused around certain topics or organizational challenges.

And while a suggestion program may be something you’d think belongs only in that open-aired and progressive work culture (or an old-fashioned factory with a wooden box on the wall that gets ignored), it really can work and succeed in any type of organization -- whether it’s more hierarchical like the one described in the NYT article, or a more progressive and flat organization like LinkedIn, Google or

Large organizations that begin with a startup feel and dynamic culture that grow rapidly often fall victim to cultural misalignment. Management styles and techniques that work for a team of 50 people, are not as functional when that team grows to 150,000. Bezos seemed genuinely confused and taken off-guard by the accusations around the less than desirable culture. If he had implemented a tool like this, he could have easily been surveying his employees, gleaning their suggestions and identifying missteps along the way.

In other words, he'd have a consistent "pulse of the organization," and have a better sense of what the real culture and shared values of the Amazon organization are. Not one that he thought he had in a fantasy world.

The right employee suggestion platform and internal communication tools can scale with an organization as it grows, and give employees in a rapidly growing culture the ability to still have a voice when the company grows from 50 to thousands. Had Amazon instituted a tool like this, their employees could feel like a more engaged part of the process instead of wrestling with the internal fear of being undercut by a coworker or on the chopping block with leadership and the chaos and tarnished image Amazon is now facing may have been averted.


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