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Amazon Employees React to 'New York Times' Story

We reached out to former employees to find out if the testimonies in the 'New York Times' article match their experiences.

by Sarah Jeong and Kaleigh Rogers
Aug 18 2015, 4:00am

Image: sⓘndy°/Flickr (remixed)

In the wake of the New York Times feature on Amazon's "bruising workplace," current employees and managers at Amazon have criticized the piece for presenting an overly negative depiction that was not "data-driven." Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, wrote, "The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know," in a leaked internal memo. Margaret Sullivan, public editor at the Times, acknowledged that "the article was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote." She concluded, "For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn't seem like quite enough."

"I actually work here, and can give you a data-driven perspective of what life at Amazon is really like, today," wrote Nick Ciubotariu, a manager at Amazon, in a widely-cited LinkedIn post. "I'm not an anonymous source, and I'm not something a journalist made up to generate clicks. I am putting my name and reputation behind everything I write, and willing to stand by my words 100%."

But Ciubotariu did not go on to cite any actual data. In fact, none of the report's critics have yet presented any hard evidence to refute the testimonies detailed in the story. Without hard numbers to back up either side, all we're left with are personal experiences and anecdotes. There are indications that relevant data is out there. One source told us that numbers on attrition were tracked by Amazon employees "after hours." "When I left there, being at the company for 1 year meant you'd been there longer than 75 percent of employees," she said.

It's also worth noting that many of the sources that the New York Times quotes are not anonymous, and there is zero indication that any of them are made up. But the dissenting views of Amazon employees—particularly when the Times piece sought to encapsulate the workplace in general—are significant. And where dissenting views are used to invalidate the experiences described in the Times article, concurring opinions are also valuable. Motherboard reached out to current and former employees of Amazon, and asked them what they thought of the piece.

"When I left there, being at the company for 1 year meant you'd been there longer than 75 percent of employees."

Many said they could not provide detailed accounts of some of the issues they had with Amazon, out of fear of being de-anonymized through specifics about their employment. It's not surprising that employees with negative experiences would seek anonymity, but what we did find surprising was that employees who had positive experiences at Amazon and condemned the Times piece as inaccurate also sought anonymity or avoided answering follow-up questions. In fact, earlier this week we published a former Amazon employee's account of the company "bathroom culture." The author finishes his piece saying he enjoyed working at Amazon. Nonetheless, he also requested anonymity.

"A hit piece"

Ciubotariu's response characterizes the Times article as a collection of "half-truths" that have been glossed over with "spin," and presumably Bezos's endorsement indicates disapproval on similar grounds. Other current employees have stated that they have never seen many of the experiences recounted in the article. A current Amazon employee—based out of Europe, rather than Seattle—agreed. "The general feeling with most employees here is that it was a incredibly biased hit piece, and not actually representative of the general experience of the company," he said. "I personally know of many employees who leave, only to return afterwards."

Two former male employees also told us that they had positive experiences at the company, but neither responded to further requests for comment or to elaborate on their time at Amazon.

"Like any job it was not without its unique challenges and pressures, but the few drawback experiences taught me a lot," one wrote.

Many other employees also mentioned that the Times article did not reflect their experiences, but also did not seek to cast doubt on the reporting.

"I didn't have significant problems," said a former male employee in the Product Ads division, who left in 2012. "The NY Times article was worse than I had experienced, but not so much as to surprise me."

A former female engineer at Amazon Web Services (AWS) told us, "I did not have all of the experiences that are listed in the NY Times piece, but even the ones I didn't have feel very familiar to me as different manifestations of the same deliberately oppressive and toxic environment."

According to her, some portions of the article were only "partly accurate," though her criticisms were aimed at statements like, "Even relatively junior employees can make major contributions," which she did not think was true.

Others believed the article was accurate. Another former male employee, who worked as an engineer at Amazon for almost three years, stated, "My experience was very similar to what was written in the New York Times article."

Still, others criticized the piece for not going far enough.

"I hated that place and had a miserable year there and would normally be happy to help," said a former manager for Amazon's distributions department. "I felt the NYT article was actually nicer than it should have been."

A "data-driven" assessment of Amazon's workplace culture

Although the article has been criticized for not being "data-driven," neither Amazon's response nor other follow-up pieces have provided data related to Amazon's workplace culture. Interestingly enough, according to the female engineer who worked at Amazon Web Services, the company has access to some astounding numbers.

"[M]ultiple internal tools have been built (by employees, after hours) to analyze the employee information in the company-wide LDAP [Lightweight Directory Access Protocol] and generate statistics around comparative seniority and what percentage of employees have been with the company for a given amount of time," she wrote.

The results of these analyses indicate an "incredible" rate of attrition, she said.

"When I left [about a year ago], being at the company for 1 year meant you'd been there longer than 75 percent of employees."

According to this former engineer, attrition was not considered a problem.

"Shortly after I left, the VP for the section of AWS I was in stood up before the org and said that there wasn't an attrition problem, because people stayed until they couldn't take the pace anymore and then got replaced with new blood."

The former Products Ads engineer said he witnessed this kind of attrition first-hand: "My department had such terrible retention that I was the second most senior of about ten by the time I left [after a year and half at Amazon]."

Poor management across divisions

Complaints from former employees almost always mentioned bad management practices.

Meetings were described in the Times article as hostile, and the former AWS engineer agreed with this assessment.

"The worst I knew of was the Wednesday morning operational metrics meeting for all of AWS, which featured the sort of intimidation tactics, screaming, posturing, gaslighting, baiting, and deliberate entrapment you expect in spy movies, not in real life," she wrote.

Other complaints about meetings were milder.

"We had meetings every other day to report progress," said the former Products Ads engineer. Failure to show adequate progress (as measured against hasty self-reported estimates) was "treated an appreciable problem," resulting in a workplace culture of constant "guilt."

The software engineer who worked at Amazon for three years complained that poor management allowed a handful of team members "to get a leg up" and "sabotage" their co-workers.

"If you had a pint with this group, you got preferential treatment on assignments and could do no wrong," he wrote. "If you didn't go to the pub with them, then your career suffered greatly and were given tasks which were very difficult to show a strong success with."

Annual reviews were also called out. The same former software engineer said that end of year reviews "did not reflect feedback received throughout the year."

The annual review and other reviews are "a farce," said the former AWS engineer. This, she said, is because stack ranking—where managers rank their employees into top performing, adequate performing, and below-adequate performing percentiles—happens before the annual review process even begins.

In her case, she said the review process was used to eventually push her out of Amazon after working there for four years.

"I was deeply undermanaged the entire time I was at Amazon," she said. At one point, she said she rarely had one-on-one meetings with her manager—a total of three in a year. Her annual review that year was negative. But she could not transfer out in hopes of finding better management, because you can only transfer within Amazon if your most recent review is positive, she told us.

One worker was told "almost all medical leave from Amazon" was for stress

Before she left, she was placed permanently on call for all urgent customer issues. Non-urgent issues had to be turned around within 24 hours, including on weekends.

"When I gave my notice, no one responded," she said. "I had to text my manager to make sure he'd seen it through the volume of email he got every day. He had, and he acknowledged it, but no one had any interest in designating a replacement for me or having me train or document anyone. No one checked in with me to make sure I was planning to return company property or to arrange a way to do it. I ended up leaving everything on my desk and getting ready to walk out."

On her way out of the building, she stopped to talk to her teammates. In the middle of the conversation, her manager stopped by and asked one of the other teammates to collect her badge from her, since he was going home.

Ex-employee: Almost all medical leave from Amazon is from stress

The long hours and high expectations placed on employees were detailed in the Times article (from 85-hour work weeks to employees clocking in during weekends, holidays, and on vacation). A follow-up testimony published on Motherboard even revealed employees feeling pressured to work while relieving themselves in the bathroom. But what hasn't been discussed as widely is the toll such pressures took on workers' health: a common refrain we heard from former and current workers, and one that has been starting to surface elsewhere in the days following the Times profile.

One former female employee told us she got only two or three hours of sleep each night for nearly a year while working at Amazon and eventually took a stress-induced medical leave. When she returned, feeling guilty about the time away, she said human resources told her not to worry because "almost all medical leave from Amazon was for the same reason."

Eventually she was fired from her job, and told us she sunk into depression for 18 months.

"My time after Amazon was the only time in my life I have ever suffered from depression," she said.

The former AWS engineer suggested that stress and overwork was not an unintentional byproduct of the company culture.

"I do know people who were edged out because of their families or health needs or simply because they expressed a desire to work less overtime," she said. "And it is deliberate: I overheard a senior manager bragging to a visitor that Amazon deliberately starves people of resources, including money and headcount, in order to force creative solutions."

Conclusion

The reaction to this week's takeout on Amazon has been just as revelatory as the original piece, with different perspectives and arguments emerging from the woodwork as people feel more emboldened to share their stories. Any company that employs more than 150,000 people is bound to have some that are unhappy and some that aren't. One person's experience does not invalidate the rest, and is not necessarily reflective of the whole. But there are certainly larger patterns that Amazon could—if it were inclined to—cast light on. (Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.) For example, what are the current statistics on attrition? And is it true that almost all medical leave is due to stress? If what we've been told is true, Amazon may very well have particularly insidious problems all across the company.