Performance Review: Amazon's Peculiar Tactics Under the Microscope

Let’s be honest: At the end of the day, who doesn’t like complaining about work? That’s probably one reason a recent New York Times story on the intense workplace culture at online retailer Amazon is so fascinating.

After interviewing more than 100 current and former Amazon employees, the Gray Lady illustrates how the company’s data-driven and peer-performance reviews help fuel some House of Cards-style office politics that caused one former employee to say, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”

"It's part of the Internet culture today that you often don't have to put your name to the reviews you give," said John Challenger, CEO of outpatient and career transitioning firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

One Amazon employee says she faced being fired after she took time off to battle breast cancer, the Times reports, and another employee said she put in such long hours that her fiancé drove to her office one night and wouldn’t leave until she answered his cellphone calls.

Despite the apparent negative consequences associated with Amazon's performance review style, not everyone thinks that peer reviews or so-called 360 reviews (where feedback comes from coworkers in addition to supervisors, managers and other bosses) are a bad idea.

"Data is the oil of the digital age," said Howard Tullman, CEO of tech incubator 1871. "Going forward, every business is going to have to be transparent. ... Peter Drucker said, 'What gets measured is what gets done.' Data's not going anywhere."

Watch the video for our full discussion on Chicago Tonight.


An excerpt from the Times article by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld

To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, “I’m Peculiar” — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.

Jeff Bezos (Photo by James Duncan Davidson / Flickr)Jeff Bezos (Photo by James Duncan Davidson / Flickr) According to tech news site GeekWire, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent a memo to his employees following publication of the Times article. In it, he encourages his employees to read the article and also alert the Amazon HR department to other stories that display a "lack of empathy."

The memo reads as follows:

Dear Amazonians,

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/technology/inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-in-a-bruising-workplace.html 

I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/amazonians-response-inside-amazon-wrestling-big-ideas-nick-ciubotariu 

Here’s why I’m writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at jeff@amazon.com. Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.

The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either. More broadly, I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.

I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.

But hopefully, you don’t recognize the company described. Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.

Thank you,

Jeff

Below, the 14 leadership principles mentioned in the article, as outlined on Amazon's site.

Amazon's Leadership Principles
Customer Obsession Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.
Ownership Leaders are owners. They think long term and don’t sacrifice long-term value for short-term results. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team. They never say “that’s not my job".
Invent and Simplify Leaders expect and require innovation and invention from their teams and always find ways to simplify. They are externally aware, look for new ideas from everywhere, and are not limited by “not invented here". As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time.
Are Right, A Lot Leaders are right a lot. They have strong business judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs.
Hire and Develop The Best Leaders raise the performance bar with every hire and promotion. They recognize exceptional talent, and willingly move them throughout the organization. Leaders develop leaders and take seriously their role in coaching others.  We work on behalf of our people to invent mechanisms for development like Career Choice.
Insist on the Highest Standards Leaders have relentlessly high standards - many people may think these standards are unreasonably high. Leaders are continually raising the bar and driving their teams to deliver high quality products, services and processes. Leaders ensure that defects do not get sent down the line and that problems are fixed so they stay fixed.
Think Big Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.
Bias for Action Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.
Frugality Accomplish more with less. Constraints breed resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention.  There are no extra points for growing headcount, budget size or fixed expense.
Learn and Be Curious Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.
Earn Trust Leaders listen attentively, speak candidly, and treat others respectfully. They are vocally self-critical, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing.  Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume.  They benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.
Dive Deep Leaders operate at all levels, stay connected to the details, audit frequently, and are skeptical when metrics and anecdote differ. No task is beneath them.
Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.
Deliver Results Leaders focus on the key inputs for their business and deliver them with the right quality and in a timely fashion. Despite setbacks, they rise to the occasion and never settle.

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