Is Amazon really a hellish place to work?

On the ongoing tiff between the retail giant and The New York Times

Working environments can be interpreted in many different ways
(Image credit: Gary Waters/Ikon Images/Corbis)

What does the ongoing spat between Amazon and the New York Times have to do with classic Japanese cinema?

I'm glad you asked.

At this point, the tussle has turned into a hall of funhouse mirrors: Back in August, the paper published a massive expose on the company's hard-charging — some might say brutal — white collar office culture. Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder and CEO, shot back, one very verbose employee came to the company's defense, and the Times' public editor raised her own complaints. Then on Monday, former White House Press Secretary turned Amazon Vice President Jay Carney made some specific disputes with the article. Dean Baquet, the Times' executive editor, hit back hard in defense of the original piece.

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There's a term for this, where people come away from the same event with contradictory interpretations: the "Rashomon effect."

It comes from Rashomon, a 1950 film by the famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The film tells the story of a crime, but it tells it more than once, and from the perspectives of multiple characters. And each time, things play out differently. It's an incredibly adroit and poignant study in the inescapable subjectivity of human perception.

Similarly, the Amazon-Times dispute is over factual assertions only to a rather limited extent. One source in the original Times piece said she was harshly criticized by colleagues on an office feedback tool, another said they were berated in a performance review, and another described working four days straight without sleep. Carney said that the feedback in the first instance was universally positive, that the second source's written review was also positive, and that the third source admitted she made the choice to work that four-day streak herself. He also cast doubts on the veracity of another employee, who described the Amazon culture as "blistering" and "scathing," by claiming the man was fired for fraud.

Baquet replied that the harsh feedback in the first instance was sent to boss of the woman in question; that the berating was done in a person-to-person review, not a written one, in the second instance; that he agreed with Carney in the third instance, and pointed out the original piece made this clear as well; and that in the fourth instance the Times found no record of the fraud.

So you can see how Carney and Baquet are probably, to a large degree, talking past one another. Margaret Sullivan, the Times' public editor, wasn't really able to find any factual problems with the piece either, though she did note Amazon's office culture is not an outlier in the professional world, as the original piece implied. (Which is not exactly an encouraging thought.) The situation was much the same with Nick Ciubotariu, the Amazon employee who leapt to the company's defense. The factual mistakes he claims the piece made can largely be chalked up to other people in a very large and sprawling company having different experiences from him.

The rest is all a matter of interpretation. What Carney, Bezos, Ciubotariu, and Sullivan all primarily take issue with is the tenor of the piece, or its emotional affect. "I don't recognize this Amazon," as Bezos himself said, which pretty clearly means: "I don't recognize the human experience the original piece described."

And therein lies the problem. One person's hard work ethic is another person's unhealthy, slavish devotion to the office; one person's brutal critique is another person's constructive dialogue; one person's competitive edge is another person's cruelty.

Consider again Dina Vaccari, the employee who worked four days without sleep. "I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there," she was quoted saying in the original piece. "For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from."

As Carney says, this is not coercion in the technical sense, but it's an unintentional giveaway that he interpreted the Times piece as saying it was coercive anyway. Human beings are social animals. The assumptions and habits of our peers and professional communities help define the contours of what sacrifices we're willing to make and what misery we're willing to endure. Ciubotariu himself describes Amazon as a place that's "the most selective," where "if you don't evolve, you perish," in which people have their "hands full reinventing the world." Of course, he sees these aspects as positives. But it's not hard to imagine how that same emotional environment could make Vaccari feel like it was socially unthinkable to fail to get done whatever needed four straight days to get done. As the Times put it, Vaccari "and other workers had no shortage of career options but said they had internalized Amazon's priorities."

So which Amazon is the real one? Ciubotariu's Amazon of driven innovators, or Vaccari's Amazon of cultish self-sacrifice? How you answer that depends on your baseline for what's reasonable to demand of people in exchange for their incomes and their sense of place and meaning in their professional worlds. How many hours are too many? How much stress is too much? What sort of work-life balance is tolerable, and what sort isn't? There are no objective answers to these questions. There may well be right answers to them. But you have to invoke morality to get there, which means you're going to have to tell some people they value the wrong things.

It's a rather existential question, because it could mean calling into doubt the American work ethic itself. Is it a healthy cultural norm that encourages human drive and potential? Or an unhealthy one that bulldozes average people for the sake of building a few isolated peaks of greatness? Should the promotion of strength and victory be our moral center of gravity? Or allowing for meekness, mercy, and the simpler everyday joys of life?

For what it's worth, Rashomon does ultimately conclude that there's an objective truth to the story it's trying to tell. And in so doing, it comes down in favor of the meek and merciful.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.