In 2015, the New York Times published an article that set off to expose the bruising workplace environment at Amazon. Dozens of employees were interviewed, and many more came out of the woodwork flooding social media with stories of their anxiety-producing work places, cut-throat bosses, and ulcer-inducing 8am-10pm schedules. Some described it as a Darwinian kill-or-be-killed environment. A place that, while gifting us the joy of same-day delivery, and a gazillion products at the lowest prices, also cultivated fear and loathing amongst its workers. The purely capitalist, growth-focused approach now seemed to be caving in on itself.
People quickly jumped to Amazon’s defence. When you’ve got more than a million employees, there are always going to be people who aren’t happy. Heck, if you have 20 employees there will be someone who isn’t happy (which is incidentally why you should take Glassdoor reviews with a grain of salt: those who are angry have the most to say, but those who are happy tend to stay silent). When you’re operating the world’s most successful e-commerce business, the standards for customer satisfaction, innovation and delivery are sky-high. There’s going to be pressure coming at you from all angles, and one can argue “that’s just what it takes.” If you don’t like how the sausage is made, then don’t eat the sausage and don’t go to the sausage factory.
Still, people were pissed. They argued that change was necessary. When you’re that big of a player, expectations for how you operate are no longer the same. When 51% of people go to church in the US but 52% of the population have a Prime membership, your relationship with society changes. Your responsibilities increase. A fast-moving startup with a few dozen employees can (for some time) prioritize growth at the expense of everything else. But eventually, the company comes to terms with its true nature: it is, at the end of a day, a group of people. The quality of life and well being of people can’t be ignored, like it or not. For those who do, there will be blood.
Has it Changed?
You can’t ignore the claims of thousands of employees who’ve come out and said ‘you suck’ to your face. And Amazon didn’t. Since the outing, they’ve taken greater care to listen when people speak. They added two new values, aka Leadership Principles, that were almost in direct response to the workplace criticism. Unlike many companies, they take their values very, very seriously and use them to make decisions at all levels of the org. The two new values are:
Strive to Earth’s Best Employer
Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what’s next? The Amazon Leadership Principles help leaders solidify their vision and commitment to their employees’ personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.
Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility
We started in a garage, but we’re not there anymore. We are big, we impact the world, and we are far from perfect. We must be humble and thoughtful about even the secondary effects of our actions. Our local communities, planet, and future generations need us to be better every day. We must begin each day with a determination to make better, do better, and be better for our customers, our employees, our partners, and the world at large. And we must end every day knowing we can do even more tomorrow. Leaders create more than they consume and always leave things better than how they found them.
You can also see that Jeff Bezos’ opinion has changed over time. In a 1997 letter to shareholders he said, “You can work long, hard or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.” Basically, at the time he believed that no matter what you do, you’re going to have to work your ass off.
This vibe has definitely changed. In recent years, Bezos has started to refer to “work-life harmony.” His opinion now is that the number of hours a person works a week isn’t the real issue. The real kicker is whether work gives someone energy or saps it.
“I know that if I am energized at work, happy at work, adding value, part of a team, whatever energizes you—that makes me better at home. Likewise, if I’m happy at home it makes me a better employee and a better boss. . . . Some people come into a meeting and they add energy to a meeting. Others come in and the whole meeting just deflates. You have to decide which kind of person you’re going to be. It’s a flywheel, it’s a circle, it’s not a balance. That’s why the metaphor is so dangerous. It implies there’s a strict trade-off. You can be out of work and have all the time for your family in the world but really be depressed about your work situation and your family [won’t] want to be anywhere near you.”
It took a few years, but this shift is starting to pay off. In 2021, Amazon won six awards commending its admirable work culture: Best Places to Work in Atlanta, Best Places to Work in Austin, Best Places to Work in Seattle, Best Places to Work in Los Angeles, Best Global Culture, and Best Company Outlook. They are clearly doing something right.
Should you work at Amazon? A quick litmus test
Even if Amazon is starting to become a better place to work, it ain’t perfect and it sure ain’t easy. Sure, you’re qualified, but should you work there? Do you have what it takes? Here’s a story that might give you some food for thought. During my time as a recruiter, I once helped the hiring manager of Amazon’s Echo devices find a senior level marketing hire. In our initial meeting to review the CVs of several candidates for the role, he told me something that left a lasting impression. “Culture fit and role fit is important. But what I really want is someone who is almost at the peak of their career.”
This, surely, doesn’t apply to every role at Amazon. There are interns, new grads, and Level 5s who by all means are far from the pinnacle of their careers. There are level 8s or 11s, directors and VPs, who are perhaps a few years past their peak in terms of energy and achievements, but are nonetheless hired for their expertise in keeping a large ship running.
This comment was telling, though, and I think it can be a good litmus test for yourself, if you’re thinking of pursuing a job at Amazon. It makes sense why Amazon hires so many people right after getting their MBAs. If you’ve just spent money on an MBA you’re probably going to be very career-driven, ambitious, and already have some experience under your belt. You’re probably in your late 20s or early thirties and more likely to have that hunger to succeed, and thrive in a results-driven environment like Amazon.
You don’t necessarily need an MBA, but if you’re applying for a role on the corporate side of Amazon, especially one that is mid level, Level 5 to Level 7, you’re going to have a ton of internal competition. Three years at Amazon is going to be like 5 or 10 years at another company. This could very well be a huge boost in terms of your personal growth, career experience, and overall set you up for a lot of great opportunities in the future.
If that excites you and you’re willing to do some short-term grinding in exchange for longer-term career growth, then that’s a sign Amazon might be a good fit. A good start would be to review the Amazon leadership principles and how the hiring process is structured.
Emotional intelligence — the overlooked success factor
That said, there’s one more thing to consider. Even if you’re excited to tackle the challenges that a role at Amazon could throw at you, it could still suck and you could still get burned out. As one employee said, “I would see people practically combust.” Even if you’re a hotshot in your current company, how do you know you won’t get chewed up and spat out, scarring you emotionally and mentally for life (or at least, for a while)? There’s probably more to it than just culture fit or being at the peak of your career: emotional maturity/emotional intelligence is an often overlooked key element that underlies success.
When Nick Ciubotariu interviewed for a Sr. Software Developer position at Amazon, he’d heard all the horror stories of the past. He was told they were true, but that the company was taking steps to make it better. He was skeptical at first, but describes his shift in opinion after working there:
“During my 18 months at Amazon, I’ve never worked a single weekend when I didn’t want to. No one tells me to work nights. No one makes me answer emails at night. No one texts me to ask me why emails aren’t answered. I don’t have these expectations of the managers that work for me, and if they were to do this to their Engineers, I would rectify that myself, immediately. And if these expectations were in place, and enforced upon me, I would leave.”
It’s possible he got lucky with a supportive manager and a fun team. But more than that, I think Nick's comment shows a level of emotional maturity and appreciation of boundaries that some people struggle with. As an engineer, I’m willing to bet that the pressure on him is immense, and he has some temptation to work weekends, but chooses not to. Notice his wording – he says “when I didn’t want to” or “no one makes me.” I would argue that any employee that complains about their boss making them work weekends is failing to stand their ground and respect their own boundaries. Of course, no one is making them do anything — they are responding to pressure, combined with the desire to stand out, and choosing their work over themselves.
This isn’t to blame the victim, or to deny the responsibility that managers and the company have to create a healthy work environment. I’m saying that your ability to be assertive, know when to set boundaries, and not feel personally responsible for other people’s emotions are going to play a big role in keeping your sanity. Especially when you’re working in a demanding environment where debate, competition, innovation and growth are constantly emphasized.
Ask yourself: If you were in a high-pressure situation to deliver short-term results, competing with other teams and hundreds of people at a similar level for promotion, would you really be able to say "no" and turn your phone off after hours? Would you be able to decline staying late with the rest of the project team? How about turning down your boss, when they ask you to start a new piece of work just as you're heading out the door? Be honest, would you cut a vacation short if your team landed a key client and it was all hands on deck to meet a steep deadline? Would you hold your ground, or would you do what’s in the best interest of the company, burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion?
These are important questions to ask yourself. And you need to answer them with absolute honesty. It’s easy to fall into the trap of bending your own rules when you’re eager to prove your value in a dream role that may have taken you several attempts to land – which is more than likely the case in Big Tech.
If you struggle with setting those boundaries then you may have a harder time at Amazon. Or any company, to be honest, given the work from home situation we find ourselves in nowadays. This shouldn’t dissuade you from applying for a job that you’ve dreamed of, but rather enable you to set expectations for what challenges you could face. The good news is that you know what to work on. Emotional intelligence is a skill you can build through gaining self-knowledge (I recommend the books Not Nice and Emotional Intelligence), and deliberate practice with the help of a coach, or potentially a therapist depending on your situation.
The success of Amazon, in large part, stems back to their approach of never settling for less, obsessively focusing on the customer, and debating until everyone’s voices are hoarse. It’s going to be hard to get rid of these, deeply ingrained, core elements of the culture. Especially since they provide a competitive advantage. That said, Amazon is a great place to work where you can learn a lot and grow a ton. In terms of work-life balance it’s certainly getting better than it was 10 years ago. When it comes to working there, consider whether you’re a culture fit, have the drive/energy at this stage of your career, and of course — whether you can both handle the heat and actually want to.