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Courageous employees: The key to avoiding Amazon’s PR problem

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” goes the old saw. I reckon Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos would take issue with that claim in the wake of the New York Times’ recent front-page story, “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace,” by Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld.

The disturbing report, which as of this writing remains both the most viewed and most emailed story on the Times’ website, describes a workplace in which employees are not only allowed to speak ill of their colleagues in performance reviews; they have an incentive for doing so.

Bezos quickly launched a counteroffensive, stating that he would not tolerate the “callous management practices” described in the Times article, and he told employees that if they witness these kinds of behaviors, they should report them to HR or to him directly.

The article troubles me as both a frequent customer of the company and an ethicist focused on leadership and employment practices. I’m not in a position to assess the veracity of the Times article. But what I can say is that companies that wish to avoid being the subject of a similar investigation should seriously consider doing the following.

Encourage courage

Savvy organizations recognize that it’s in their own financial interest to hire and promote courageous employees.

Courageous employees are willing to tell managers things they need to know, even though they might not want to know them. In a recent column for Fortune, I described how Sarah, an employee for the catering company Culinary Architect, told CEO Alexandra Troy about another employee who was badmouthing Alexandra behind her back. That wasn’t an easy thing to do—nobody likes to be a snitch—but it helped Alexandra learn about a traitor in her midst and to take swift action to protect the interests of her company and its clients.

 

Courageous employees also stand up to corruption beyond the organization. Ken Meyer, vice president of human resources at Community Healthcare Network in New York City, once told me about a former colleague of his whom I’ll call Marvin, who was the new director of the fire safety department at the company where Ken used to work. A dishonest vendor of fire extinguishers offered Marvin a bribe to fake inspections of these crucial devices, a practice that had been going on for a long time apparently.

Marvin gave the vendor an ultimatum: Stop the bribes and inspect the extinguishers immediately or lose a lucrative business. Imagine how many lives could have been lost had working fire extinguishers not been available when they were needed.

Won’t managers view employees like Marvin as troublemakers? Do we really want employees to feel free to take action whenever they feel an injustice is taking place at work?

For my book, The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees, I asked David Searles these questions. David, who has been a key audio engineer with several major cable news networks, once stood up to a guest—a U.S. Senator—who made some snide remarks to David about a Representative who had just been interviewed on a program there. Both David and the Representative are African-American, which made the Senator’s comments particularly unwelcome.

After David finished miking the Senator, he politely but firmly told him that such comments were uncalled for. “Without people standing up to injustice, you’ll have people undermining you, and you’ll have cutthroat activities,” David told me.

“The key to speaking up isn’t just what you say; it’s how you say it … I tried to be as dignified as I could, and I didn’t show any anger. I just called [the Senator] on something that shouldn’t take place here.”

That’s why David Searles is an employee who deserves to be called one of the Good Ones.

What courage is and what it is not

The Times article about Amazon (AMZN) portrays a culture in which employees have self-interested reasons for criticizing colleagues: They’re more likely to remain on the payroll. Whether or not this really is a pervasive problem at Amazon or is instead the perception of a few disgruntled former employees, one thing is certain: Finding fault with colleagues for the express purpose of keeping one’s job is not an example of courage.

Courage in the workplace is rooted in two things. First, courageous employees have a profound commitment to justice. Sarah, the Culinary Architect employee who told her boss about a troublemaker at the company, wasn’t trying to curry favor with her boss or boost her chances for getting her contract renewed. Rather, she was troubled by a colleague’s wrongful conduct, because it harmed both her company and the clients she worked for, and Sarah cared about both.

She then found the inner strength to reveal what she’d witnessed. That’s the second component of courage: the willingness to take action to correct an injustice.

 

David Searles too was bothered—and rightly so—by something he observed at work. He could have remained silent, and his job would have been safe, but instead he spoke up.

I’ll admit I was surprised when David told me that he remained employed by that news organization for four more years. Employees have been fired for doing a lot less. But his company must have recognized that it was in their own interests to have someone like David around, even at the risk of having the occasional guest bristle by David’s willingness to speak his mind.

Does your organization welcome and even reward people like Marvin, Sarah, and David? If not, how might it benefit by doing so?

I’ll close with a quotation by John A. Shedd that I saw on a poster when I worked at Jack-in-the-Box in high school. It has stayed with me ever since.

“A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

Bruce Weinstein, The Ethics Guy, is a keynote speaker and corporate trainer in ethics, leadership, and character, and his latest book is The Good Ones: Ten Crucial Qualities of High-Character Employees.