Is Amazon's hard-charging workplace exploitative?

The harsh, demanding workplace at Amazon.com Inc. portrayed in a published report this week naturally caught the attention of Jennifer Chatman.

Chatman teaches about corporate cultures at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, where she's the Paul J. Cortese distinguished professor of management.

Amazon was described in a New York Times story as pushing its white-collar workforce to the limit, with employees crying at their desks and being dismissed or discouraged about advancement after having children.

The giant retailer's chief executive, Jeff Bezos, responded by saying, "I don't recognize this Amazon" and added that the company would have zero tolerance for managers showing any lack of empathy for his 180,000 employees.

But by then the story had sparked a national debate about whether Amazon's challenging management and expectations were excessive or whether they were necessary for a hugely successful and innovative company.

So we asked Chatman for her take, and here's an excerpt:

What was your initial reaction when you read the story?

I was actually not surprised. Since the beginning, Jeff Bezos has been very deliberate about developing a culture at Amazon that supports their strategy. I certainly don't like some of the stories [of individuals] portrayed there. No one likes that, those are unpleasant. But I have to tell you, Amazon is doing all the right things in terms of leveraging its culture for strategic success.

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Leveraging its culture?

It's a very results-oriented culture that values new ideas and speed. There is a requirement that people actually fit. This is a strong culture that will appeal to a very select group of employees. It's for people who want to be challenged and grow and have their ideas taken seriously from the get-go.

The article indicated that if one didn't fit, Amazon was a harsh place to work. Was that your view?

The bigger question is, is it unreasonable for companies to expect people to work 85 hours a week? Is it unreasonable for companies to expect employees to not recover from illnesses or medical challenges and move beyond them? That's a bigger, societal question: What is the psychological contract at work and what do we expect from our employers?

We certainly expect some reciprocity and concern and support. These are human organizations after all. The [Amazon] proposition is "Look, you come and work here, we're going to give you more responsibility, more challenge, more uncharted territory, more opportunities to innovate than any company around. But in exchange for that, you're going to have to work really hard, and we're going to move really quickly and you're not going to like all of our decisions. That's the deal."

If you're the kind of person who would rather work in a place where everybody is nice to each other and there's great harmony and things move a little bit more slowly, this isn't the place for you.

The online version of the story drew more than 6,000 comments, and many readers seemed surprised by what they learned. How do you account for this?

These kinds of cultures are more common in high technology, more innovative businesses. Jeff Bezos has disrupted the retail industry. The culture there looks really different than other retail organizations. Part of the surprise from this article is: Wait a minute, as a customer I know Amazon as being in the retail business. But really Amazon is in technology; this is a big data company.

The story made little mention of the salaries of the workers interviewed. Did that factor into how you viewed the situation?

My belief is that Amazon employees in general are paid well relative to the industry, and there is a substantial amount of employees who share in the company's growth with stock. But even if that had been mentioned, there's still this other consideration of how people should be treated at work.

The reason the article hit a core with the public is that it's really addressing this issue: Is work just instrumental and if you get paid well then we should own a lot of your time versus is there some other socially moral component to the employer-employee relationship?

That second piece is what left people uneasy. Where's the line at which point you're beginning to exploit people? That's what's unclear about the article. Are these disgruntled employees that they spoke with and everybody else is happy? Or is this a very significant portion of people who are saying, wait a minute, we think Amazon has crossed the line.

Is that a new question?

No. It goes way back historically to the Industrial Revolution where we started people in factories and just worked them as hard as we could because you were trying to maximize productivity. At some point employers realized that workers actually worked more effectively if you treated them well, too.

Will this change how Amazon treats its employees?

Amazon I think is doing exactly what it promised with employees. If you're up for that, come here. It is not ambiguous. The concern is that the culture is so strong and perhaps so intense that Amazon is going to start limiting [the size of] its labor pool.

But Amazon is among the most agile of the largest publicly traded high-technology firms. I would expect we will see some kind of modification to the culture as a result of this article.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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