Amazon (AMZN) is dealing with a mess of Amazonian proportions.
After an investigation into Amazon's management techniques was published by The New York Times, some consumers are vowing to cancel their Amazon Prime accounts and to boycott the giant online retailer. The piece, by writers Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld, was based on interviews with more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, and many had brutal things to say about working at the retailer.
The report was a revelation for many consumers who rely on Amazon for everything from quick delivery household items to streaming video and data services, but who may not know much about the company itself. According to The New York Times, the company relies on "purposeful Darwinism" to weed out employees who can't take its culture, which insists on round-the-clock hours and doesn't tolerate workers who need to take time off to care for sick relatives or even their own medical emergencies.
"The question is how far is too far? Are there limits on how hard employees can work?" Kantor told CBS This Morning on Monday. "For example, we did hear from people who felt that they were evaluated too harshly," Kantor said of workers quickly given reviews as they contended with cancer and other devastating issues.
In one case, a mother of a stillborn child was told as soon as she returned to work that she would be placed on a "performance improvement plan." That worker left Amazon shortly afterward, telling The Times, "I had just experienced the most devastating event in my life" but the company wanted "to make sure my focus stayed on my job."
Amazon's culture is based on a set of principles that are designed to teach workers how to act, such as "hire and develop the best" and "think big." But women in particular said they believe those principles contribute to a gender gap at the company, such as its culture of encouraging disagreement. For women, being too outspoken and forceful can lead to being criticized as being difficult or abrasive, research has shown.
Starting a family can also be a disability at Amazon, with one former Amazon worker telling the publication that she was told starting a family would prevent her from earning promotions. Men as well as women feel the pressure from Amazon to spend less time with their families, the report said. Amazon offers no paid paternity leave.
Customer reaction hasn't been positive, with some consumers vowing on social media to stop buying from Amazon or to cancel their Prime memberships. It's not the first time that Amazon has been in the news for the way it treats its workers. The Supreme Court in December ruled Amazon did not have to pay its warehouse workers for time spent in security check lines, overturning a lower court decision.
Some customers and writers -- including science-fiction icon Ursula K. Le Guin and comedian Stephen Colbert -- have snubbed the retailer due to what they say is a negative influence on publishing.
Amazon is fighting back, with chief executive Jeff Bezos writing in a memo sent to employees this weekend that the article didn't accurately portray the company's work environment. He also urged workers to report incidents like the ones included in the article to human resources or email him directly.
"It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard," Bezos wrote. "Again, I don't recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either."
He added, "I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market .... I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay."
But apparently many workers aren't staying at Amazon. The median employee tenure is just one year, one of the shortest among companies in the Fortune 500, the Times reported, citing salary analysis firm PayScale.
Amazon senior vice president of global corporate affairs Jay Carney told CBS This Morning that the suggestion of high turnover was misleading. "Attrition, people leaving, cycling in and out of this company, is completely consistent with other major tech companies in the United States," Carney, former White House press secretary, said. "There's no difference at Amazon. But what is different is that 150,000 of the people who work at Amazon out of the 183,000 are in jobs that didn't exist five years ago."
Many people enjoy working at Amazon. Its rating on employment site Glassdoor is 3.4 out of 5 stars, with about 62 percent of employees saying they'd recommend working at Amazon to friends. Nick Ciubotariu, head of infrastructure development at Amazon.com Search Experience, posted a rebuttal on LinkedIn, writing that people in his group work "hard, and have fun .. we're vocal about our employee happiness."
Regardless of what is the actual reality of working for Amazon, not everyone is swayed to sympathize with the company's white-collar workers. Many positions, such as product managers and engineers, pay six-figure salaries, according to Glassdoor. And at least a handful of its executives and other white-collar employees have benefited from Amazon's meteoric stock-market rise. Just this year alone, the shares have surged more than 70 percent.