Why Amazon’s culture of maltreatment will drive top talent away

In August, The New York Times published an exposé of Amazon’s work culture that painted a grim, ugly picture of life inside the corporate giant. Employees spoke of a cutthroat environment where they were encouraged to work 80-hour weeks and also routinely saw colleagues crying at their desks.

Recovering cancer patients claimed they were ejected from the company because of their condition. When a woman miscarried twins, her boss allegedly suggested that he didn’t know if Amazon was “the right place” for her if she wanted a family.

In an internal memo, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pushed back. He claimed to not recognise “this Amazon,” urging his employees to “escalate to HR” if they knew of any stories like those The New York Times had unearthed. The Times article depicts a seemingly endemic culture of mistrust and abuse, and so it is perhaps little wonder that Bezos was named World’s Worst Boss at the International Trade Union Confederation World Congress last year.

With its big name (and promises of high salaries), Amazon will continue to attract top talent. However, the best employees won’t stick around for long if that culture isn’t reformed. High-caliber talent is increasingly flocking to lesser-known startups, even if it means taking a 15 to 20 per cent salary cut. The reason? People want to escape the crushing and sometimes hostile cultures of world-renowned companies.

Startups are ‘stealing’ top talent from large, established companies

Amazon is just the latest corporation to see fallout from its cultural woes. Even Google, the paragon of workplace fun (offering everything from free meals to foosball to nap pods), has seen an exodus. This speaks to the fact that it’s not just about the money or the bells and whistles, rather the chemistry between hiring manager, employee, and the company as a whole.

A position recently opened at Silicon Valley startup Chegg that required a Ph.D. This is a tough job to recruit for. There are simply not enough Ph.D.s to go around — especially when you’re talking about data — but the company was able to attract someone who worked for LinkedIn. Chegg’s leaders used the company’s culture as a lure, offering an opportunity to leave a legacy and avoid a bureaucracy.

Chegg hired the former LinkedIn employee — he was admittedly excited. Originally a data scientist at LinkedIn, he felt his ideas would be better heard with Chegg, and further, he could have the impact there he hadn’t yet delivered in his career. LinkedIn is a great company, but as with any company that grows big, it has become bureaucratic.

Few people enjoy office politics, and workplace pettiness tends to build when a company grows as large as Amazon or LinkedIn. Employees tend to feel that office politics negate the impact of their work and create unnecessary headaches. The most talented people are interested in one thing, above all else: vision.

Employees care about culture

It’s worth remembering that when Apple started out, there were no employee perks or valet parking. It was the substance behind the company that attracted the talent. People cannot be bought on commodities. Benefits may be great, but they’re the icing on the cake.

Employees care about culture. If you’re spending eight or more hours a day working, your office becomes essentially a second home. What do you want it to look like? I’m not suggesting startups are never stressful and crazy, but the saying is true: Do what you love, and you won’t work a day in your life.

People want freedom in their work to make the best decisions. If you ask someone whether they’d rather live in “Red China” or Sweden, most will plump for Sweden. It’s not that China isn’t a great civilisation with great people, but it’s a tough place to live.

In big companies, culture tends to start with the CEO. Bezos may not recognise the culture described by The New York Times, but — if it’s an accurate portrayal — it’s his mess to clean up.

Shape your culture to retain great people

If you’re a business leader, consider whether your company’s culture is helping you retain great employees or steering them away. Talent is king in the tech space; ensure your talent is productive and happy. Google may have lost a few people over the last six months, but it is routinely rated as one of the happiest workplaces in America.

Learn from Google’s example. When your company expands, keep an eye on the culture and be responsive to problems. Too often, people think workplace culture means open offices and catered lunches, but it could be as simple as people getting along with their managers in an environment that isn’t totally toxic.

Great culture starts with the right mix of people. If your workplace is a collaborative environment, seek those who like to work together. If people can work from home and still be productive, limit your hiring to self-reliant, independent people. Listen to your intuitions about who would fit in and who wouldn’t.

The situation at Amazon isn’t unique. We only need to think back to the media exposé of the appalling conditions in Nike’s sweatshops in the 1990s. Nike turned things around; so must Amazon.

In our new age of startups and technological innovations, companies can’t afford to offer talent anything less than the best — high salaries will stir plenty of interest, but culture is what keeps your best employees coming back.

Kashif Aftab, CEO and Founder of SkillGigs