Amazingly bruising, thrilling workplace

SEATTLE • On Monday mornings, fresh recruits line up for an orientation intended to catapult them into Amazon's singular way of working.

They are told to forget the "poor habits" they learnt at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they "hit the wall" from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: "Climb the wall," others reported.

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 (e-mails 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. (The tool offers sample texts, including this: "I felt concerned about his inflexibility and openly complaining about minor tasks.")

CRYING AT WORK A COMMON SIGHT

You walk out of a conference room and you'll see a grown man covering his face... Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.

MR BO OLSON, former Amazon employee

Many newcomers filing in on Mondays may not be there in a few years. The firm's winners dream up innovations that they roll out to a quarter-billion customers and accrue small fortunes in soaring stock. Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff - "purposeful Darwinism," one former Amazon human resources director said.

Some workers who suffered from cancer, miscarriages and other personal crises said they had been evaluated unfairly or edged out rather than given time to recover.

Even as the company tests delivery by drone and ways to restock toilet paper at the push of a bathroom button, it is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable. The company, founded and still run by Mr Jeff Bezos, rejects many of the popular management bromides that other corporations at least pay lip service to and has instead designed what many workers call an intricate machine propelling them to achieve his ever-expanding ambitions.

"This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren't easy," said Amazon's top recruiter Susan Harker. "When you're shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn't work."

Mr Bo Olson was one of them. He lasted less than two years in a book marketing role and said his enduring image was watching people weep in the office, a sight other workers described as well. "You walk out of a conference room and you'll see a grown man covering his face," he said. "Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk."

Thanks in part to its ability to extract the most from employees, Amazon is stronger than ever.

Last month, Amazon eclipsed Wal-Mart as the most valuable retailer in the US, with a market valuation of US$250 billion (S$352 billion), and Forbes deemed Mr Bezos the fifth-wealthiest person on earth.

More than 100 current and former Amazonians - members of the leadership team, human resources executives, marketers, retail specialists and engineers who worked on projects from the Kindle to grocery delivery to the recent mobile phone launch - described how they tried to reconcile the sometimes-punishing aspects of their workplace with what many called its thrilling power to create.

In interviews, some said they thrived at Amazon precisely because it pushed them past what they thought were their limits.

Others who cycled in and out of the company said that what they learnt in their brief stints helped their careers take off. And more than a few who fled said they later realised they had become addicted to Amazon's way of working.

"A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It's the greatest place I hate to work," said Mr John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book called The Amazon Way.

Amazon has been quicker in responding to changes that the rest of the work world is now experiencing: data that allows individual performance to be measured continuously, come-and-go relationships between employers

and employees, and global competition in which empires rise and fall overnight. Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.

Mr Bezos created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics.

According to early executives and employees, Mr Bezos was determined almost from the moment he founded Amazon in 1994 to resist the forces he thought sapped businesses over time - bureaucracy, profligate spending, lack of rigour.

As the company grew, he wanted to codify his ideas about the workplace into instructions simple enough for a new worker to understand, general enough to apply to the nearly limitless number of businesses he wanted to enter and stringent enough to stave off the mediocrity he feared.

The guidelines conjure an empire of elite workers (principle No. 5: "Hire and develop the best") who hold one another to towering expectations and are liberated from the forces - red tape, office politics - that keep them from delivering their utmost.

Mr Bezos wrote in his 1997 letter to shareholders, which still serves as a manifesto, that when he interviewed potential hires, he warned them: "It's not easy to work here."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Amazingly bruising, thrilling workplace'. Print Edition | Subscribe