You don’t get a $250 billion market capitalization – the highest valuation of any retail company in the world – without hurting some feelings. Just ask Amazon of Seattle.
Amazon’s reputation took a hit this week after the New York Times published an article on Aug. 16 describing the company’s work culture as “brutal.” The story, which included interviews with current and former employees, said it was common for Amazon employees to cry at their desks, to be chastised for health problems that impede their work output and to backstab co-workers to get ahead.
The article set off a debate within the technology industry about how hard companies push their employees and whether workers should expect much of a work-life balance at top firms.
We spoke with several L.A. tech executives about establishing workplace culture and policies: Adam Miller, chief executive of human resources software company Cornerstone OnDemand of Santa Monica; Courtney Chapman, product manager of culture at automated digital advertising exchange Rubicon Project of Playa Vista; and Allan Jones, chief marketing officer of hiring software platform ZipRecruiter of Santa Monica.
The free lunches, massages and unlimited vacations that many startups offer, do perks like these really make employees more productive?
Chapman: Team members want to feel valued and invested in by their company. Perks such as free lunches only account for a fraction of that investment. If your culture and productivity is defined by your perks, you’re in trouble.
Jones: By implementing perks based on an individual company’s culture, you ultimately drive behavior in the team that helps the company meet their goals. Perks are also great for attracting the kinds of top talent you need to compete and win.
At what point does a company culture become so competitive and unforgiving that it’s counterproductive?
Chapman: It becomes counterproductive when it impacts retention, hinders team collaboration and encourages unethical behavior. When team members are constantly trying to elbow their way to the top, they aren’t working together.
Miller: I learned early on in my career that working harder doesn’t necessarily mean working more hours. We found that giving people the time they need to recuperate when they need it, allows them to dramatically outperform their peers in other companies.
Jones: Building a company, especially one creating alternative, never-traveled-before pathways to success is tough, stressful, exciting, fulfilling, grueling, demanding, fun and disappointing. Anyone who only lists “fun and exciting” on a tech job description is being disingenuous.
Goldman Sachs, McKinsey and Apple all have reputations for hard-driving work cultures. Is a strenuous work culture just a fact of life when working for a top firm?
Miller: The underlying company culture in a lot of these companies was misguided. It was assumed that because other companies that overworked their employees achieved success that they too would have to overwork their employees to be successful. However, it turns out that if you treat your employees well, you can also do extremely well, and everyone will have a better time along the way.
Jones: The truth is this, the best people play to win because winning makes them happy. Getting the win means cycling through “tough, stressful, exciting, fulfilling, grueling, demanding, fun.” That’s all part of the path; it’s expected and makes the win that much sweeter.
Is anonymous employee feedback, such as Amazon’s Anytime Feedback Tool, an effective way for a company to gather information and learn about the performance of its employees?
Chapman: Anonymous feedback tools are helpful, but they can’t be your only source of information. At Rubicon Project, we try to strike a balance between formal and informal feedback solicitation. In terms of informal solicitation, it can be as simple as an honest conversation where you ask team members how they are doing.
Miller: Anonymous employee feedback is an effective tool to help encourage people who may not be comfortable with openly sharing their thoughts. It is an essential part of getting the right amount of info, but it must be placed in context, and it should be used as a part of a larger feedback strategy.
Should highly competitive firms or startups try to enable any sort of work-life balance?
Miller: It has now been proven by a new generation of companies that you can treat your employees well, create a positive working environment, and still be high performing. Work-life balance is essential to this. With the ongoing war for talent, benefits beyond the traditional are the next wave of being able to hire competitively. They are essential to attracting and retaining the best.
Jones: Innovative technology companies like Amazon, Apple and even here at ZipRecruiter only play to win. And if you’re not down with the path it takes to get there, maybe you should reconsider the industry you’re in.
If you’re ok with that, then it is the company’s silent obligation to you to support you through life occurrences, family building and other personal issues. And they should do it with no qualms or quarrels because at the end of the day, you’re both playing the game for the same reason: to win.
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