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Why some of Amazon’s ‘problems’ aren’t really problems

New Amazon employees line up for orientation, on the retailer?s campus in Seattle.New Amazon employees line up for orientation, on the retailer?s campus in Seattle.
New Amazon employees line up for orientation.Photograph by Ruth Fermson — The New York Times/Redux

I’ve been contemplating the New York Times article on Amazon (AMZN) and its company culture, described as a “bruising workplace.” The piece brought up some interesting points. Former employees spoke negatively about everything from the company’s expectations to the way they were treated by management. One person said she didn’t sleep for four days because of her workload. Another said workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings. That might put off some, but one point that was overlooked is: People shouldn’t stay at a job they don’t enjoy. My guess is people stay at Amazon because they’re pushed. They’re expected to grow professionally and produce results. They like that challenge. They want to work for the smartest person in the room, even when it means getting negative feedback or extra work thrown onto their plate. The positives outweigh the negatives, and it can be viewed that for many the negatives aren’t really negatives.

The purpose of company culture is to drive revenue. Just because Amazon’s culture wasn’t right for some doesn’t mean it isn’t right for others. This article fails to address that. Companies don’t grow as big and as fast as Amazon without hard work (Amazon Prime subscribers alone grew by 53% in 2014). A good culture without revenue growth isn’t really a good culture.

Another problem that stood out at me was how one person complained about Amazon stack ranking employees. Stack ranking is when managers across a company are required to rank all of their employees on a bell curve. In my view, that’s not a problem at all; it’s something all companies should be doing. I stack rank my managers; my managers stack rank their staff. It’s the best way to find out which employees need extra time and development. Sometimes this results in letting people go. While I’m not from the school of thought where you cut the lowest 10%, even if they are producers, some companies are. Amazon is clearly doing something right with a market valuation of $250 billion.

When it comes to stack ranking, a lot of companies follow the bell curve model, but that can be harder to implement when employees are working on different projects. I grade simply from strongest performers to weakest performers. It has proven to be very effective and created healthy competition for people who want to grow. A majority of people want to know how they can improve and grow in their roles.

From a developmental and retention standpoint, stack ranking also shows managers who they need to spend more time with. Employees who receive little-to-no feedback from managers tend to become disengaged. In fact, 68% of today’s workforce feels managers don’t offer enough feedback and only 43% of people receive feedback at least once a week. If someone isn’t producing or working toward their company’s goals, they’re killing the culture. Top performers don’t want to work in an environment where low performances are tolerated, and they’ll often leave when that happens.

There is no one-size-fits-all definition of how a workplace should be run. And I’m not sure why people would want every environment to be the same. Amazon’s environment isn’t for everyone. But just because the people quoted in the article didn’t like it, doesn’t mean others won’t. Plenty of people do, and that’s why Amazon continues to grow.

Tom Gimbel is the CEO and founder of the LaSalle Network.