Navigating the Amazon: Workplace Culture and Ethics


While talk in August can normally drift to Labor Day vacation plans and how to brew the perfect pitcher of iced tea, a different sort of discussion began to surface in offices (and backyards) across America: that of workplace culture and the different extremes that workers at Amazon report as the norm.

The New York Times article that started it all, “Wrestling Big Ideas in a Grueling Workplace,” provided an eye-opening look into the management practices, feedback loops and performance measurement metrics at Amazon, eliciting both accolades and acrimony from current and former employees. After much debate, the dust settled at a realization that the intensity is both a blessing and a curse and tailored for only certain kinds of personalities. An overarching theme was that burnout is common and, to a certain extent, expected. 

When we talk about workplace culture, what we are really asking is: “Are the conditions comfortable enough to help me succeed?” If not, the question becomes “What do I need to do- or, more importantly, where should I go- instead?” Implicit in these questions is a judgment as to whether the organization is an ethical one. From an ethical systems perspective, a solid commitment to ethics comes part and parcel with creating and sustaining a supportive workplace culture. An ethical culture is the key to creating an organization that supports people making ethical decisions and behaving ethically every day.

A new Ethical Systems research page devoted specifically corporate culture, created with input from Linda Treviño, David Mayer, and Ann Tenbrunsel, provides context about workplace culture in designing ethical systems and the latest research on how to actually measure culture change within organizations.

Most important to note- especially in context with The New York Times piece- is that ethics is not the same as treating employees well. Ethical companies seem almost always to treat employees well, and research shows that it can contribute to profitability. But Amazon is a good reminder that it is also possible to do well financially by driving employees mercilessly- provided you can continue to recruit a steady stream of employees. Very few companies can do that.

By now, most people have formed an opinion on whether a culture like Amazon’s is right for their temperament and style of work. “Culture,” as Warren Buffet says, “more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves.” This is true no matter who you are, where you work or how you prefer your iced tea.

*image courtesy of USA Today