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Office ‘Darwinism’: Will Your Company Follow Amazon's Lead?

The recent New York Times article on the work environment at Amazon has put a spotlight on the culture of the competitive workplace and the increasing difficulty of attaining a satisfying work-life balance.

Amazon culls its workforce annually, based in part on performance reviews from coworkers. It’s a data-driven system that could be coming to more companies soon.

Professor Robert Sutton of Stanford University has examined management practices at many companies, and discusses this with Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. Sutton says the work culture at Amazon is nothing new and not unusual, and that successful businesses have leaders who check in regularly with employees to give feedback and listen to their needs.

Interview Highlights: Robert Sutton

On the work culture described in the New York Times’ piece about Amazon

“I was not surprised when I saw that they could find a lot of employees who had terrible experiences there. I did not believe that Amazon was a uniquely evil company because all the competitors in that space, they are places where it’s very tough to work. So Amazon might be especially Darwinistic – it’s somewhat more Darwinistic, more hard edge than Google, for example – but it’s got nothing on Apple. Apple is a tough place to work.”

On high pressure workplaces

“There is evidence that the people who are, say, in the top 10 percent of compensation work longer and longer hours, and so that’s part of what you get. But, you know, law firms have been terrible places to work for a long time – ask anybody who’s worked in a major law firm. Consulting firms have similar hours; financial services firms have similar hours. Maybe because of things like glass door and because of social media this stuff comes out more, but to me, this is not a new story. And part of my reaction is ‘well gee, sorry folks.’ If you want to have your devices – and this is all of us – with the latest and greatest and have it upgraded and people can hardly wait for the next Apple phone, this is the kind of workplaces that we’re all in sort of this agreement that this is what we want. So we’re helping to create jobs like this for people under all this pressure… If most of my hot young engineering students walked into a place where people worked 40 hours a week and people went home at 5 o’clock and people took long vacations, most folks would say ‘this place isn’t gonna make it, I’m going to go to a place where the action’s heavier and I work longer.'”

On Amazon’s annual culling of the bottom 10 percent of its workforce

“There’s all sorts of evidence – and it’s interesting because they’re an evidence-driven place – that that is a dysfunctional management practice. It’s interesting the companies that brought it to us – General Electric for example, Adobe used to have it – they’ve all been getting rid of it because there’s all these negative effects that the evidence shows leads good people to leave, and to strange political behavior.”

On traditional annual performance evaluations

“There is a movement towards getting rid or reducing the importance of the annual performance evaluation… My joke for years has been that if the annual performance review was a drug, it would not get FDA approval. It’s just this bizarre conversation with this person who’s your boss that bears no relationship to what happens the rest of the year. It’s just bizarre.”

On his definition of a good boss

“You’re taking a long-term view of the people that you work with, you understand where they’re at, and you help them get what they need so they can stay there and succeed for a long period of time. That’s what a good boss is.”

On the difficulty of balancing work and personal life

“I think in many places it’s terrible. I think we’re pretty sick as a society and Amazon and other places, they rely heavily on people who don’t have families or who don’t have interest in work-life balance, and the job is everything for them. It’s sort of like going to prison or going off to war or something. One of my students, this is about three or four years ago, he elected to not go to work for Google because his girlfriend did not work at Google and he was never gonna see her. I mean think about it: they feed you, they have your laundry done… life is great. If his girlfriend was there, it would have been perfect. When you have places like Amazon, places like Apple, places like Google – any one of these companies that are in very competitive environments – you start wearing out people so much and you start getting them so focused on being competitive, that they kind of voluntarily forget about the rest of their lives because they get so obsessed with it. Even when they come home now, what are they doing? They’re looking at their phones. Even when they’re there, they’re not there. So I think that not just for Amazon but as a society we need to start working on the agreements we have with one another for our employees and our families. I mean, even as customers, maybe we should stop bugging people in the middle of the night or something like that. But this general sort of notion that we as a society have to sort of slow down and maybe think about there might be times we need to slow down and hit the brakes.”


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