There has been a great deal of discussion and press coverage lately about working conditions at Amazon. What’s most interesting, is trying to identify the fine line between highly competitive and an environment where workers are miserable.

 

As you probably saw, a New York Times article last month painted a pretty bleak picture of the alleged workplace environment at Amazon for professional employees. Essentially, it included a litany of difficult-to-read stories about a hyper-competitive culture where health or family emergencies are seen as inconvenient. The anecdotes get worse from there.

 

“At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, work long hours and then again in the evening (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and are held to standards that the company boasts are ‘unreasonably high,’” according to the New York Times article. “The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”

 

Jeff Bezos, founder, chairman, president and chief executive of Amazon, issued a company-wide memo in response. I saw it carried in the Wall Street Journal, but you may have seen the memo elsewhere. Here is one excerpt:

 

  The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly …. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.”

 

The allegations and Bezos’ reply have in turn sparked an interesting discussion about hyper-competitiveness, employee morale and productivity. For example, on The New York Times: Room for Debate page yesterday, Guy Kawasaki, chief evangelist of Canva, an online graphic design tool, wrote that “work isn’t supposed to be fun.”

 

“In the best case scenario, it’s rewarding in financial and psychological ways but it’s not like going to Disneyland,” Kawasaki wrote. “Everybody doesn’t win. Trying hard isn’t enough. It’s not always the happiest place on earth. This is why people get paid to go to work.”

 

The flip side of the coin, as explained on the opinion page by Judith Rodin, president of The Rockefeller Foundation, is that not only can companies do well by treating employees fairly, the company’s long-term success and competitiveness depend on it.

 

“Misery at work leads to high turnover, which leads to high costs. The Center for American Progress estimates that turnover costs employers 20 percent of the departing worker’s salary—significantly more than the cost of preventing that turnover with benefits such as paid sick days,” Rodin wrote on the opinion page. “By accounting for and investing in the well-being of employees, companies can greatly increase retention and save money. For example, employers that have used The Source, a service providing support for employees in addressing challenges outside of work, saw a return on investment of almost 300 percent due to significant reductions in turn-over and increased productivity.”

 

As for Amazon, Jeff Bezos himself wrote, “I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market.” But regardless of where, exactly, the cutthroat competitiveness and high expectations come from, the result is many employees burn out quickly and leave the company. While the culture does produce results, one must wonder if it will eventually become difficult for the company to attract top talent, even if they may work on so-called “world-changing projects.”

 

What I’d like to know is what you think. What are the consequences of such a competitive workplace? Also, will it eventually become difficult for such a company to attract talent?