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Bloomberg Columnist: Report On Amazon's Work Culture Not Surprising

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If the reviews are so mixed, why do people continue to seek work at Amazon? Justin Fox is a business columnist for Bloomberg View, and he's written about Amazon on and off for 20 years. Welcome to the program.

JUSTIN FOX: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: You write in the end that this hiring approach feels a little like traditional law or consulting firm set up, where you kind of bring in people knowing that, like, most of them won't stick around by the time you get to partner level, right?

FOX: Yeah, and that's sort of the bargain at those places. Really smart, really ambitious young people come in, and they know from the beginning that it's pretty unlikely that they'll make partner, but it's worth it anyway 'cause they learn a lot. They meet important people. They get useful skills that they can use somewhere else. And it feels a little that way at Amazon, too - that, you know, if you stick around long enough in all your stock vests, you can make a whole lot of money. But the people who only stay for a couple years really don't. They actually get less than you would at other tech companies.

CORNISH: Right, so that doesn't sound good. And then, as you point out, this arrangement has been unraveling lately in the law, right? So is this a model that you think is sustainable?

FOX: Well, it's unraveling in the law because the growth stopped in the law. I mean, it's this model that's predicated on continuing to grow. And, you know, you look at how big Amazon is now and how giant its market capitalization is, and it's enough to make you scratch your head. At the same time, people have been expressing doubts about this company from the very beginning, and it has kept confounding most of them. I mean, occasionally it screws up in a big way, but it sort of plows through and has kept finding ways to get bigger and become a more central part of our economy. And so I'm not going to predict that it's unraveling anytime soon.

CORNISH: But you're asking the question of how long can Amazon keep this up? I mean, is it really doing something so different from Google, Apple, Facebook, right - all places where I'm sure, you know, in the world of tech, there's high turnover?

FOX: The main difference from Amazon is that there's a lot less in the way of perks, like the free food and the great benefits that you sometimes will get at a Google or a Facebook. And then they do seem to just ratchet up the intensity another level.

CORNISH: Although the difference, I would think, is also profits, right? I mean, Amazon isn't making what a Google or Apple is.

FOX: No, it's not. And in a lot of ways, its main competitive advantage is its ability to keep going without making much in the way of profits and get continued support from Wall Street and investors. And I think the reason for that continued support is because of the company's ambition. I mean, Jeff Bezos makes it very clear that they're planning to be a lot more than they are right now. And, I mean, early on, when it was just a bookstore, it didn't take long before he was making clear that they wanted to be doing more than just selling books that you couldn't find at Barnes and Noble.

CORNISH: So is this report as sort of damning as people are implying?

FOX: I didn't see it as damning. There's really nothing in this report that surprises you. This is this sort of intense culture that Jeff Bezos has been pushing at this company for two decades. Obviously, when you read about people getting forced out because they have thyroid cancer, that's pretty gross, and clearly Jeff Bezos acknowledged that, too. He didn't say that this had never happened. He simply wrote in his memo to employees, if you see something like that happening, send me an email.

CORNISH: But are people being dismissive of this because it's white-collar workers, right? I mean, there was outcry when Amazon was accused of building a distribution center in Pennsylvania with no air conditioning, right, and having paramedics outside instead of air conditioning. Now, here's this report about the conditions for white-collar workers, and in this environment and in this economy, is this any more fair?

FOX: Well, I mean, I think what Amazon did in the warehouse in Pennsylvania and elsewhere was horrible, and they were shamed into putting in air conditioners after the Morning Call newspaper wrote about it. Most of this stuff in this article doesn't come to this level - that level. These are well-educated, white-collar workers who could get jobs in other places talking about what an intense work environment they work in. If I were were someone considering employment at Amazon, I would pay a lot of attention to it. I think it's a bit much, as a customer, to say that this is the thing that's going to turn you off from the company if, you know, forcing workers into heat prostration in Pennsylvania was not enough already.

CORNISH: Columnist Justin Fox - he writes for Bloomberg View. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FOX: Thank you for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.