What Jeff Bezos and the team at Amazon have achieved is unprecedented in the world of retail. However, if the New York Times portrait that ran over the weekend is accurate, what Amazon needs is not better people willing to work longer hours but rather more robots willing to work tirelessly, 23 hours a day, 7 days per week.
I’m not joking. Right now, Amazon has nearly 10,500 open positions in the U.S. alone. If Bezos hopes his baby hits $1 trillion in revenue, it will have to be on the backs of silicon, not carbon. The system he is building, as incredible as it may be, is not sustainable with human beings in the picture. To Bezos’s credit, he’s moving in that direction. (Take notice, anyone who is employed anywhere!).
In the meantime, Bezos must consider eliminating two destructive HR systems that, ironically, violently violate the very rules that have driven Amazon’s success.
One is the policy of allowing employees to submit anonymous feedback on each other. This policy, as described in the Times, should be ended. All businesses, no matter what their culture or core values, need to follow certain universal principles like transparency. Trust (also one of Amazon’s 14 rules) is another of them. Trust depends on employees talking to each other directly if they have a beef with one another. Talking behind each other’s backs makes that impossible. This is leadership (and parenting) 101.
The company’s forced ranking system of employees is equally harmful. Internal collaboration and cooperation trump competition — and drive greater profits, something Amazon could use — when the right people are hired in the first place. There are plenty of external competitors to keep the creative juices flowing.
And Amazon’s workers should not feel they must compete against each other for their jobs by putting in 80 hour weeks. Evidence is clear that working more than 60 hours a week is counterproductive. When you go above that, you end up working additional hours to fix what you messed up. This situation indicates an under-investment in employee education and development.
It’s the incongruence between these two HR systems and Amazon’s “rules” that are the foundation for the severe people problems creeping into its culture. To be fair to Bezos, the Times later reported he deplored the profile, and he said in a letter to employees the company was described as “a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard.”
“I don’t think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today’s highly competitive tech hiring market,” he said. “I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.”
I agree that no company can survive under these conditions. But I have not seen any statements in which he denies these two destructive policies exist. That, to me, is very telling. And until these policies are eliminated and/or he’s replaced most of the jobs with soulless robots, he’s threatening to blow up the very foundation which has supported Amazon’s success to date. There is a different and better path, and I hope Bezos chooses it.
Verne Harnish is author of Scaling Up