Earlier this month, the NY Times published a devastating exposé about Amazon.com's apparently nightmarish workplace culture. Although writers Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld spoke to over 100 current or former Amazon employees with few anonymous quotations (and were backed up by other similar inquiries into the company's Orwellian vibes), there was pushback from founder Jeff Bezos and other longtime Amazonians that the anecdotes did not fairly represent their company.
Even Margaret Sullivan, NY Times Public Editor, had criticisms about the piece, saying, "the evidence against Amazon, while powerful, is largely anecdotal, not data-driven." Considering the fact that Amazon has been cagey at best about that data—whether it involves diversity hires or the lack of female leadership in the company—that seems like a pretty thin argument to make.
But if you need more first person accounts of what it's really like working at Amazon, former employee Julia Cheiffetz has a good essay today in which she takes Bezos to task for doubting people's "isolated" anecdotes: "In the absence of meaningful public data — especially retention data — all we have are stories."
Cheiffetz, who worked at Amazon from 2011 through 2014, said she wept after reading the Times piece. She details her experience at the company when she went on maternity leave and was diagnosed with cancer six weeks after giving birth. Here's what happened when she finally returned to work:
After a five-month leave, I was nervous and excited to return to work, and I showed up that first day back with a big smile and a phone full of baby pictures to share. I figured I’d catch up with folks and get a high-level update on how the business was doing, since the strategy had evolved from the time I was hired. Here’s what happened instead: I was taken to lunch by a woman I barely knew. Over Cobb salad she calmly explained that all but one of my direct reports — the people I had hired — were now reporting to her. In the months that followed, I was placed on a dubious performance improvement plan, or PIP, a signal at Amazon that your employment is at risk. Not long after that I resigned.
She also directly speaks to Bezos at the end:
Jeff: You asked for direct feedback. Women power your retail engine. They buy diapers. They buy books. They buy socks for their husbands on Prime. On behalf of all the people who want to speak up but can’t: Please, make Amazon a more hospitable place for women and parents. Reevaluate your parental leave policies.
Cheiffetz's experience echoes that of other women at Amazon in the Times story, including Michelle Williamson:
Many women at Amazon attribute its gender gap — unlike Facebook, Google or Walmart, it does not currently have a single woman on its top leadership team — to its competition-and-elimination system. Several former high-level female executives, and other women participating in a recent internal Amazon online discussion that was shared with The New York Times, said they believed that some of the leadership principles worked to their disadvantage. They said they could lose out in promotions because of intangible criteria like “earn trust” (principle No. 10) or the emphasis on disagreeing with colleagues. Being too forceful, they said, can be particularly hazardous for women in the workplace.
Motherhood can also be a liability. Michelle Williamson, a 41-year-old parent of three who helped build Amazon’s restaurant supply business, said her boss, Shahrul Ladue, had told her that raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required. Mr. Ladue, who confirmed her account, said that Ms. Williamson had been directly competing with younger colleagues with fewer commitments, so he suggested she find a less demanding job at Amazon. (Both he and Ms. Williamson left the company.)
He added that he usually worked 85 or more hours a week and rarely took a vacation.
But hey, how important is all that when Amazon might soon be able to provide alcohol delivery in under an hour.