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Welcome to the jungle: Amazon, culture and outrage in the Valley

Sharon Florentine | Sept. 10, 2015
The recent controversy surrounding Amazon's "brutal" workplace is missing some critical points about corporate culture.

A clear definition of your company culture is going to deter some highly qualified talent while attracting others. The point of making culture relevant to recruiting and hiring decisions is to better gauge whether or not a job seeker is going to thrive within the organization, and whether they share the same mission and values above and beyond their ability to perform certain tasks or master certain skills. It's not fool-proof; there will be some false positives, hires who don't fit -- and some false negatives, those you don't hire who would have been great.

"This looks like churn, but it's not. This is what happens when workers experience a culture and say, 'This is not for me.' The culture that's so maligned at Amazon is actually something Bezos has been clear about since the beginning, and it's been successful, so I don't think there's reason to change it. In fact, I think you double-down on it -- celebrate this culture, create more stories about it and point to more examples that truly embody it. You have to write your own narrative," says Marcus Buckingham, an author, talent management expert, researcher, founder and chairman of The Marcus Buckingham Company.

Keep tabs on your culture

Writing your own narrative requires deep insight into what's working at your organization, what's not, and how to fix it. This is the great irony of Amazon's public relations nightmare -- how could a company so focused on listening to customer voices miss the grumbling of discontent within its own ranks? "These surprises happen in every company, they just tend to happen much more frequently the bigger you get. You have to be looking at the feedback loops throughout the entire organization, not just those from your peer group," says Albrecht.

Even in a small organization where the CEO has an open door policy, communication breakdowns can happen, says Chris Byers, CEO of Formstack, a digital forms solution and data collection company. Transparency is a great goal for organizations to have, but it's difficult to maintain as a business grows; employees might not feel emboldened to walk into the CEO's office and share what's on their mind. "If the door is open but no one comes through, you can't just think, 'Well, everything must be fine,' it's up to you to go out the door and solicit feedback, or you risk missing an issue that could blow up like it did with Amazon," Byers says.


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