Amazon's Botched Delivery

U.S. News & World Report August 19, 2015

The retail giant totally failed in its response to a New York Times piece on its work culture.

Topping the list of first-world problems this week is the agonizing decision of whether or not to boycott Amazon. A New York Times piece on the work-culture at the retail giant has struck a nerve with journalists and middle-class shoppers everywhere. USA Today's Jefferson Graham proudly proclaimed that as a result of the story he will wait "two or three days, or even a week" to get his camera lens. A noble sacrifice. I'm not sure what will occur during those anxious extra days of waiting for the camera lens – but I'm banking on work-life balance for everyone (same day shipping).

According to the Times, Amazon is a tough place to work. New recruits are expected to put in long hours – sometimes up to 80 per week. Readers were cajoled with numerous anecdotes about uncaring managers who are insensitive to workers and an evaluation system that reads like a page from a scientology handbook – complete with Anytime Feedback Tools.

The story didn't paint a flattering picture of life as an Amazonian. But, to be honest, it didn't sound so outrageous that it warranted an expose either. After all, there are lots of jobs that aren't flexible and require long hours. Journalists work on tight deadlines, at night, in hurricanes and in wars, all without stock options. People have choices about where they work.

To me, the great irony of the story is that Jeff Bezos is being criticized for not providing work-life balance for his employees at a company he founded that provides work-life balance for everyone else. This morning, when my daughter walked out of the bathroom with an empty toilet paper tube in her hand, I didn't panic wondering how I would get to the store and still make it to work on time. I clicked two buttons on my phone, handed her the last roll I could find, and went on my way. My 48 rolls of double-ply will arrive this evening, along with the hummingbird feeder that we so desperately need.

Like it or not, Bezos has built a system that is designed for working parents. I used to spend my Saturdays driving to a store 10 miles away because it was the only place that sold the special formula that my daughter needed. Today, my friends with babies laugh about those stories. Diapers, baby food – it's all delivered to their door in record time. And the system is successful because it was built it by a workforce that was never promised flexibility, rock climbing walls or private lactation rooms. In fact, Amazonians are promised long hours and challenging work – and they are rewarded not with free time, but with stock options.

If you want to boycott Amazon, boycott it for what it completely failed to do this week, which was to address a media crisis head-on. Employees and shareholders should be outraged at the company getting caught flat footed by the story and failing to have any strategic plan in place to address it. Amazon knew the story was coming out, but chose to essentially remain silent – not exactly an innovative or groundbreaking reaction. Perhaps its executives hoped that no one would read the piece (a concept they might want to re-examine during an Organizational Level Review)?

When it became painfully clear that the story was in fact being read – by everyone – Bezos finally responded by sending an e-mail to Amazon employees encouraging them to secretly report their superiors to HR, essentially validating what the Times wrote in the first place. For a guy who owns the Washington Post and prides himself on "hiring and developing the best" (principle No. 5), his response was mangled like a package delivered by a defective drone. If Bezos wants to mitigate the damage that's already been done, he might want to read some books on crisis communications. There's a pretty good selection on Amazon.