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Amazon: On Being (Or Not Being) The Best Place to Work

Recently, one of our “service revolution” companies made the news—and not in a positive light. A controversial piece by the New York Times revealed high turnover and employee unrest at Amazon, a company known for its customer service. How are we to consider these allegations? Is it possible that life inside Amazon’s Seattle headquarters is not as friendly as their external image would suggest? Can a company deliver 100% customer satisfaction when its internal culture breeds conflict?

To begin with, we should remember that many, many people work at Amazon. About 150,000. While some may have had a bad experience, others undoubtedly love it. The New York Times didn’t talk much about the positive aspects to Amazon’s culture, or interview people who liked their jobs. Instead, it published a somewhat sensationalist expose. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem at Amazon.

Take the high turnover rate. Amazon admits to terminating its lowest performing employees every year, on a sort of quota system. A certain number of people are exited out, to make room for new recruits. This creates considerable competition within the workplace. It also makes it easy to drive out the people who aren’t happy, rather than working to find a solution.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claims he does not recognize or condone the harsh management practices reported in the Times article. “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either,” he wrote in a memo to all employees. Unfortunately, many people do; and they have made their grievances known. For those employees, Amazon was not the Best Place to Work.

Here at U.S. Lawns, we’ve always admired Bezos and the Amazon Team. Their mission statement includes the phrase “Customer Obsession”—which you understand, if you’ve ever done business with them. You can buy almost anything from Amazon, and have it delivered to your doorstep overnight. If you’re part of the Amazon Prime customer loyalty program, you can get it in two days with free shipping. Customer obsession has really paid off for Amazon. To date, they’re the largest retailer in America, surpassing even Walmart. They’ve helped put huge competitors like Borders books and Blockbuster movies completely out of business.

But you won’t find anything in Amazon’s mission statement about being the Best Place to Work. And that’s a mistake, according to U.S. Lawns President Ken Hutcheson.

“Culture is what happens when you’re not around,” he says. “By creating an employee centered culture, you’re ensuring that your business model runs itself. So if you really want your business to work, you have to give your people incentive to genuinely buy in.”

That means, Jeff Bezos can’t “get out of jail free” simply because he didn’t know about poor management practices. His company has a culture, which he’s largely responsible for. What happens when he isn’t around is the direct result.

So, great service may be your obsession … but are your employees on the same page? Or, are they distracted by other aspects of company culture that get in the way? Let’s be honest. How service-focused can someone be if they’re trying not to lose their job in a company that thrives on turnover? Or dealing with a terrible manager?

The truth is, Amazon’s service revolution may not last if there’s too much dissent among their ranks. Remember … “Spartans, what is your profession?” We must all commit to a united front.

At U.S. Lawns, we believe that happy employees lead to happy customers. Look across town from Amazon to another Seattle-based company: Starbucks. Their culture couldn’t be more different. Starbucks is cooperative and warm and feel-good. Employees are encouraged to stay long-term, enjoying benefits like health insurance and college tuition. Like Amazon, Starbucks is a service revolution company. Every barista working behind the counter seems to believe in the customer experience. Why? Because culture is what happens with the CEO isn’t around. And Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has done a great job creating a culture for his employees as well as their customers.

See the difference? When Howard Schultz isn’t around, his employees deliver great service. When Jeff Bezos isn’t around, his employees complain to a newspaper reporter. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the point. Do you want your employees going public about how badly they’re managed? No way!

In the wake of all this controversy, some people have claimed they won’t use Amazon anymore. Lucky for Mr. Bezos, his company is probably big enough to survive. But its image may not.

As Ken Hutcheson says, “You can’t have cooperation unless everyone believes in the outcome. Otherwise, it’s an illusion.”

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