When Workplace Culture And Brand Goes Horribly Wrong

Everyone’s been weighing in on the recent expose on the workplace culture at Amazon, and on what Jeff Bezos has built (or not built). Honestly, I cannot say I’m surprised. The culture there shows signs of being broken, and has been for years: if you treat your workers like interchangeable parts, that’s not culture, it’s a disconnect. It’s important to remember Amazon is only one of many, many brands that faces challenges on this front. What’s important is that we learn from feedback and listen to the warning signs.

One might argue that the numbers speak for themselves, but the collateral damage is too large to justify it: it’s not just churn, and it’s undoubtedly marred productivity. And sure, we’re talking about a brand with an innovative, groundbreaking concept that’s effectively pushed the envelope. Yes: in doing so, it has literally changed how we consume, shifting our focus to social, mobile, online and deconstructing one of the oldest archetypes in civilization (the store).

One can even argue that in the abstract, its been on the vanguard in HR: Its HR department has boldly harnessed and gathered data on performance and predictors, and transformed once soft strategies, like customer feedback and peer review, into hard and actionable data. But it’s taken the workplace zeitgeist way too far. In a dismaying acceleration of the idea that our hyper-competitive global economy requires a hyper-competitive company, it runs itself with an almost Darwinistic relentlessness — a former HR director there called it “purposeful Darwinism.”

Which is a contradiction: there is no such thing as natural selection done on purpose. That’s culling, or eugenics, or the dangerous extreme of sink or swim.

But the most glaring contradiction for me is that a workplace culture would intentionally embrace that kind of Machiavellian aspect in the first place. Is this is in fact the case, that’s not workplace culture. That’s workplace anti-culture. It’s an entirely misguided belief that pushing talent to the brink is the best way to motivate and engage them. Instead, they’re talking to reporters. So what we’ve got here is a perfect example where the pursuit of excellence has taken off at a headlong gallop towards success, and HR, employees and leaders are being dragged alongside, its foot caught in the stirrup. And now, despite the fact that this company seems to be as common in many households as running water, it will forever have “ruthless” associated with its employer brand. Let’s see how many super-bright millennials are willing to cross that threshold. This is where it gets dangerous for brands to recover.

HR and culture is about how we manage humans in the workplace, how we transform employment into true engagement, and foster a cross-pollinating kind of energy and creativity that aligns with company mission. The tools we use to do this have changed, but it’s the same pursuit. Find brilliant people to hire, keep them happy and engaged, keep them growing and learning, position them to excel and succeed.

In the case of the behemoth in question their well-bring was sacrificed in countless ways, only of which is that HR and Leaders innovated ways for competition, not collaboration, to drive every action. It appears that workers were invited to bully and undermine each other. It’s bad enough that workplace bullying is not going away. But if we’re not careful, it’s going to become seamed right into the very functionality of the workforce: one step forward, two steps back.

A version of this article was first published on Forbes on 8/21/15

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