Amazon's hard-driving corporate culture could land in Canada
The retailer's unforgiving, "Darwinian" workplace has been in the spotlight since a New York Times expose
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TORONTO — The excesses of Amazon.com's hard-driving corporate culture made headlines this week, raising questions about whether similar problems are possible at Canadian companies.
The New York Times reported that the white-collar employees of the mega-popular online retailer are dealing with an unforgiving and competitive culture in which the obligations of the company take supremacy over every other aspect of life.
In one illustrative anecdote, a woman returning from thyroid cancer treatment was given a low performance review because of what her colleagues accomplished while she was off work.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, issued a memo on Sunday in which he called for zero tolerance of the "shockingly callous" management practices alleged in the article, and encouraged employees to contact him directly by email if they had concerns.
Marty Parker, founder of the human resources consultancy firm Waterstone Human Capital, said the extreme experiences of some Amazon workers isn't a geographic quirk but a reflection of the company's revolutionary ambitions.
"This is one tough culture, but this is an environment that's trying to take over the retail and digital universe," he said in an interview.
Parker said a company based in Canada with a similar mission would likely demand the same of its employees.
"Amazon knows who they are," he said. "They're trying to take over the world and they recruit people based on that."
That type of extreme workplace environment is often seen in high-volume, low-margin industries like retail, where efficiency is paramount.
The biggest problems arise, Parker added, when managers down the line from Bezos do their best to implement their own interpretations of his uncompromising vision for productivity.
"They're going to be representing that culture every day and some of them are just going to take it way too far," he said.
In a perverse way, Parker added, the revelations could help Amazon attract new workers, at least those who thrive and want to work in that type of cut-throat environment.
Markus Giesler, an associate professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University, said Canadian companies are just as susceptible to the extremes of corporate culture as American ones.
"People are pointing to it as a uniquely American phenomenon, even though it is not," he said.
Giesler said corporate culture has been transformed in the last 30 years as businesses have begun expecting more and more from their employees in an increasingly globalized economy.
"The idea that employees should be radically flexible, always on call, always serving the customer, and sacrificing themselves to help the company is something we find all over the world," he said.
As businesses have applied economic theories to maximize efficiency, he said, some have lost sight of the real human needs of their employees.
Yet Giesler said treating employees like cogs in a machine is unsustainable over the long term.
"Taking care of these things is profitable in every respect," he said.
Yet Steven Murphy, dean of Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management, said it's less likely for a Canadian company to drive its workers as hard as Amazon allegedly does.
America's culture of individualism and entrepreneurship means U.S. companies can be more innovative as well as more demanding, he said.
"A lot of U.S. corporations, and especially tech, ride that balance between dedication and a level of commitment that we may not see in Canadian organizations," he said.
"But from that you can achieve a level of output and entrepreneurial thinking that drives companies like the Apples and the Googles of the world."
Murphy said worker protection laws mean little if employees buy in to a system that rewards overwork and extreme behaviour.
"You have to be careful about your culture because you can create atmospheres where self-worth is tied into your job," he said.
In the youth-focused world of tech, Murphy added, many employees have scant previous experience — and therefore nothing to which to compare their current office culture — and often don't have the sense of loyalty to a company that older workers do.
"In tech, more than anywhere, there's a sense that we can run people really hard because there's a whole line of people who think our organizations are really cool who are ready to come in," he said.
"And that can be a really dangerous assumption for an organization in the long term."