Amazon: Easy to Critique, Easier to One-Click

Last week I received an e-mail from one of my clients, a CEO who hired us to launch a culture change initiative for his executive team. Linking to The New York Times scathing exposé on Amazon’s corporate culture, he simply wrote, “This is the opposite of what we want to create.”

The public response to the story was immediate and visceral. One publication said Amazon had “a sweatshop-like culture.” Another noted its work-life balance score: 2.6 out of 5. In a memo to his employees, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos went into damage control mode, saying he didn’t recognize the company portrayed in the article.

Although the exposé is being criticized as based on “generalization and anecdote” and a more complete picture is emerging, an important question for all of us arises: If a company is meeting our needs as customers, why should we concern ourselves with how they run their business?

Greatest Place I Hate to Work

Amazon has exactly the culture it intended to create. Unlike many companies, where creativity and innovation is characterized by ping pong tables, buffet lunches, and spa treatments, Amazon seems stark. It doesn’t boast the typical perks and benefits of other tech firms because it values frugality.

It also values confidence and competence. As one journalist notes, “Bezos abhors what he calls ‘social cohesion,’ the natural impulse to seek consensus . . . and he has codified this approach in one of Amazon’s 14 leadership principles [Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit].”

Bezos isn’t a hypocrite. He’s never been coy about the kind of culture he wants to create. His leadership principles include an intense focus on “constant friction” and “adversarial competition” in which employees simultaneously feel frustrated and proud. One former executive writes, “A lot of people who work there feel this tension: it’s the greatest place I hate to work.”

Purpose of Business

Bezos understands the market. Since the 1970s we’ve seen increased focus in businesses on maximizing shareholder value. By that standard, Amazon is successful. Last month, it surpassed Walmart in market capitalization, making it the most valuable retailer in the country. In August 2005, one share of Amazon was worth $43; this year, it’s worth almost $500. If profit is purpose, then Amazon’s doing quite well.

What if, though, human flourishing is the main purpose of business? In Why Business Matters to God: And What Still Needs to Be Fixed, professor Jeff Van Duzer describes a “Genesis” model for business, where business is a means to steward all that God has entrusted to the care of his image bearers:

[A]s stewards of God’s creation, business leaders should manage their businesses (1) to provide the community with goods and services that will enable it to flourish, and (2) to provide opportunities for meaningful work that will allow employees to express their God-given creativity.

Some competitors of Amazon have taken a different route to success. Hearts & Minds, an independent bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, is owned and operated by Byron and Beth Borger. Their craft goes well beyond stocking and shipping. They want to accomplish Van Duzer’s two purposes of business. The value they create isn’t primarily in their transactions but in their relationships, as they serve their customers by writing delightful reviews, curating book lists to help customers grow in their love for God and understanding of vocation, and hosting gatherings for readers and writers.

Real Culprit

We may publicly condemn large companies like Amazon and praise small businesses like Hearts & Minds. But when it comes to buying our books and placing our orders, we usually go with the company that offers the fastest and cheapest option—without regard for how it treats it employees.

Who, then, is to blame for “bruising” workplaces, where people are treated like cogs in a machine rather than humans created in God’s image? It may very well be us, the consumers.

Knowledge Creates Responsibility

As an Amazon Prime customer, I contribute to the corporate culture Bezos has created and encouraged. I’m “implicated,” as my friend Steve Garber might say, by what I know. The only question, then, is “What must I do?”

First, I might consider working for Amazon as one of its more than 115,000 employees. After all, since God became man, leaving the riches of glory to enter the messy world of human beings, I can work as salt and light in places of darkness. I can be an agent of hope in a difficult work environment.

Second, I might thoughtfully consider changing my shopping habits, choosing to frequent businesses that value and invest in human flourishing. My small changes may not make a difference to the overall economy, but they might play a part in bringing together my “inner” and “outer” person (Matt. 23:27).

Finally, I might consider building or running—or encouraging my friends to build or run—a company in ways that celebrate a culture that values people as image bearers. This is one thing I hope to do with my clients. In our last meeting with the CEO who hired us to launch a corporate culture change, he remarked:

We’re too proud of our financial success. Our investors love our return on investment (ROI), but our employees and our customers don’t feel valued. I’m not motivated by money; I never have been. I’m here for the people. I’m inviting you to join me to make this a place where people love to work and customers love to buy, where human lives and relationships are valued above all else.

I’ve asked the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation (PLF) to work with us to create a culture where safety is our priority, excellence is our standard, and character is valued above expedience. But I can’t do this alone. Will you join me?

Healthy cultures are deeply intentional and develop over time when we implement values and invest in good people, processes, and environments. They needn’t be lavish, but they must value people for who they are, not simply what they do.