Workplace Culture: the Good, the Bad, and the Amazon Effect

Last week, the business world was all abuzz with the New York Times article on the culture of Amazon.com. It turned out to be a two-sided coin. On one hand, the company is incredibly successful and empowers its employees to do great things. On the other hand, it has a work culture that is, to put it charitably, ultra-demanding and competitive. Apparently, criticism in meetings can be so harsh that people break down in tears under the pressure.

Predictably, many present and former Amazon employees spent the week in a raging online debate about the merits and morality of the company’s culture. Some criticized it for its take-no-prisoners approach (and no less for its lack of women in upper management). Others were saying that, duh, if you want to accomplish great things, you have to have an aggressive culture. Get over it.

I’d like to look at the question from a slightly different perspective. Everyone talks about culture, but very few dig into what it is and what it means to individuals. Put simply, your job is what you’re paid to do. You’re a writer, accountant, or CEO. Culture is everything about a workplace that’s not your job. It starts with work/life balance, but also includes how people treat you, how criticism is managed, how the company behaves in challenging times, recreational and training programs, and so on.

Culture affects two things. The first is the company itself. Amazon’s culture has driven innovation and success, undeniably. But the second is you. You go to work all day, and spending time in a culture can change you as a person for better or for worse. The Times article is pretty clear about this. Amazon imbues its employees with a strong work ethic, which is a great quality to have. However, it also has a tendency to produce people who are critical and combative (its ex-employees are sometimes called “Am-holes”). In addition, it prioritizes work over all else, including family. One commenter on the job site Glassdoor said that if you have kids, working at Amazon means that your time and mental energy for them will be "extremely limited.” In other words, work here, and you’ll be a crappy parent.

If you have a choice of employers, you should have a cultural checklist for what kinds of things you want to see in a company—and what priorities you have. The following is by no means an exhaustive one, but it can give you an idea of some things you might want to ask yourself.

Are you ok with working with jerks? Some companies tolerate and even encourage jerks, so long as they drive results. But if you work all day with assholes, you may end up being one yourself. It’s worth thinking about.

Do you like to work hard or have a work/life balance? Agencies like the one I work for get very busy at times. But that’s not the goal of the company—it’s simply the way the industry works. Other companies, particularly startups, actively disregard work/life balance as a point of pride. You have to decide if the possible increased compensation makes up for the impact on your life.

Is the company transparent? Amazon has a system where anyone can anonymously call out other employees for real or imagined offenses. Other companies have clear policies against such things. If it’s important for you to know what’s going on with the business and your coworkers, transparency is a must. If you think doing your job well is all that matters, this may not be as important.

Do you care about perks? Amazon provides employees with coffee but no snacks. That alone tells me I’d never fit in there.

Do you need clear hierarchy and structure? Our company has a flat structure where senior managers rub shoulders with everyone else. You might think that’s always a virtue, but some people don’t like it. They’d rather have a clear understanding of how the company ladder works and how to climb it. This might be important to you too.

Do people socialize together? If your coworkers love socializing with one another, and you don’t, you’ll feel left out. On the other hand, some workplaces discourage employee friendships, which can lead to feelings of isolation. This should be an important part of your decision either way.

You’re probably wondering how you get answers like these about a company. Believe it or not, it’s easier than you think. Amazon, to its credit, warns all prospective employees that ultimate dedication is expected. You can also ask about culture during your interview. Or shake your network to learn as much as you can. Failing that, sites like Glassdoor are also pretty good at describing culture, though you may find the posts a little top-heavy with whiners.

Above all, remember that different people like different things about culture. You’re unique. What’s great about Amazon is that it’s not hiding anything. It could be a good fit for you if you’re young, aggressive, and want to change the world. However, if you have other interests, you might prefer a place that’s less exciting, but more suited to who you are and want to be. But whatever you do, don’t forget snacks. They can be a real deal breaker.

Original article published on LinkedIn here. Follow all of Shane's LinkedIn Influencer posts here.

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