The 3 Most Shocking Claims Made by Ex-Amazon Employees

August 17th 2015

Kyle Jaeger

From the outside, Amazon is often thought of as a successful, digital empire that has simplified (and capitalized on) online shopping—a popular platform for electronic commerce, cloud computing, publishing services, and just about everything in between. From the inside, however, the multi-billion dollar company takes on a different look, and the New York Times has offered a glimpse into that world with its fascinating investigative feature, "Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace."

In an effort to streamline innovation and promote productivity, the corporation has forgone many of the progressive, workplace conventions commonly associated with Silicon Valley tech companies, The Times reported. That includes, but is not limited to, holding employees to uncompromising professional and personal standards, encouraging them to secretly report feedback about coworkers to their bosses, and pushing the white-collar staff to work late into the night and on weekends, too.

More than 100 former and current Amazon employees spoke to The Times for the in-depth report. Taken together, their stories form a narrative that is both fascinating and troubling—raising questions about the company's "competition-and-elimination" system, which penalizes those who fail to keep up, even when they suffer from health issues or personal tragedies.

1. One woman said she was criticized for missing work for cancer treatment.

Molly Jay, one of the former employees who agreed to be interviewed, said that she was criticized by her superiors and denied the opportunity to transfer to a "less pressure-filled job" in the company after she was diagnosed with cancer. Jay had worked at the company for several years, earning high ratings for her work on the Kindle team; but shortly after she started her cancer treatment program, which caused her to cut back on working nights and weekends, her boss told her that she was "a problem." Then her father fell ill, Jay said, so she took unpaid leave and never returned.

"When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness," Jay told the Times reporters.

2. One woman said she was asked to travel the day after surgery due to a miscarriage.

In one allegation of Amazon's jarring administrative practices, another employee was pressured to travel for a business trip one day after she had surgery due to complications from a miscarriage. "I'm sorry, the work is still going to need to get done,” her boss reportedly told her. "From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don’t know if this is the right place for you."

"A former human resources executive said she was required to put a woman who had recently returned after undergoing serious surgery, and another who had just had a stillborn child, on performance improvement plans, accounts that were corroborated by a co-worker still at Amazon. 'What kind of company do we want to be?' the executive recalled asking her bosses."

A former human resources executive at the company, Robin Andrulevich, described this system as one of "purposeful Darwinism," meaning that Amazon employees only "survived" if they could meet these extreme standards; if something as extraneous as cancer got in the way of one's performance, many were effectively eliminated.

3. One said he regularly saw co-workers in tears.

Bo Olson, who worked in Amazon's book marketing department, told The Times that it was not rare to see employees welling up at the office. "You walk out of a conference room and you’ll see a grown man covering his face," Olson said. "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."

Here's how Amazon's CEO responded.

For what it's worth, Amazon's founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos, said on Sunday that he would not tolerate the "shockingly callous management practices" reported by the Times. In an email that was sent to employees throughout the company, he maintained that he did not recognize the workplace that was described in the article and encouraged anyone who knew of "stories like those reported" to contact him directly.

"Even if it’s rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero," Bezos added.