Amazon is now the biggest retailing corporation in the world. And if the New York Times is to be believed, then this Rome, like the original, was built on the backs of a ruthlessly over-worked labour force.
The New York Times published a long read this weekend, describing in brutal, heart-breaking detail, the work environment at Amazon.
It cites an example of a female employee recovering from thyroid cancer being told she was performing poorly at work.
In another horrific instance, a woman who had just miscarried twins, left on a business trip the day after the surgery. "From where you are in life, trying to start a family, I don't know if this is the right place for you," she was told.
It's the kind of thing we're told exists aplenty on Wall Street.
But in a world where Google lays out a food festival in every headquarter in the world every afternoon, and Flipkart has announced maternity benefits far above the industry-standard, we had begun to imagine that tech companies in general knew the lasting benefits of being sought-after employers.
It may not be the case. "One time I didn't sleep for four days straight," a former employee, Dina Vaccari, told the Times. (An intern at Goldman Sachs was tragically found dead last year for a similar four-day-no-sleep feat). Vaccari then hired a freelancer in India to share her data-entry work.
She paid for it from her own pocket.
Amazon has one of the worst attrition rates among Fortune 500 companies. It believes in 'Purposeful Darwiniasm'. A system where only the most resilient, ambitious and hard working survive, while the rest move on elsewhere.
Vijay Ravindran, who oversaw the checkout technology at Amazon, said "Amazon is O.K. with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars. They keep the stars by offering a combination of incredible opportunities and incredible compensation. It's like panning for gold."
The NYT article, possibly because of its corporation-wide resonance, provoked a fairly prompt response from the typically taciturn Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO. He said he did not see Amazon as the 'soulless and dystopian' organization the NYT story described it to be.
The letter he wrote addressed employees of Amazon, but was sent to media publications worldwide.
"The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day," Bezos defended. "More broadly, I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market."
He proceeded to tell every employee that should they be aware of "shockingly callous management practices", they should escalate it to HR or email him directly.
The full text of his letter below:
If you haven't already, I encourage you to give this (very long) New York Times article a careful read:
I also encourage you to read this very different take by a current Amazonian:
Here's why I'm writing you. The NYT article prominently features anecdotes describing shockingly callous management practices, including people being treated without empathy while enduring family tragedies and serious health problems. The article doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day. But if you know of any stories like those reported, I want you to escalate to HR. You can also email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if it's rare or isolated, our tolerance for any such lack of empathy needs to be zero.
The article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don't recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don't, either. More broadly, I don't think any company adopting the approach portrayed could survive, much less thrive, in today's highly competitive tech hiring market. The people we hire here are the best of the best. You are recruited every day by other world-class companies, and you can work anywhere you want.
I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.
But hopefully, you don't recognize the company described. Hopefully, you're having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.
It's not the first time Amazon has been accused of being an inhumane employer - but it is possibly the single most scathing takedown of the company's HR practices ever. We'll be speaking to a couple of ex-Amazonians on condition of anonymity this week; watch this space for an insider's take.