Amazon hits back at New York Times probe into workplace culture

Amazon hits back at New York Times probe into workplace culture

Retail giant Amazon is hitting back at a two-month-old New York Times investigation into its workplace culture.

Jay Carney, an Amazon executive and former White House press secretary, claims the paper overplayed negative stories and failed to disclose that a source was accused of fraud while at the company, in a post published to Medium on Monday morning.

The story published by the Times in August claimed that the company “is conducting a little-known experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers, redrawing the boundaries of what is acceptable.”

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It cited former employees who described a brutal working environment where employee wellbeing was not a priority. It also alleged that the company harshly treated employees who were experiencing health crises.

Carney said that Bo Olson, who told the paper that he had seen “nearly every person I worked with” cry at their desk, had left the company after being accused of attempting to defraud vendors.

“Even with breaking news, journalistic standards would encourage working hard to uncover any bias in a key source,” Carney, a former reporter, wrote in his post. “With six months to work on the story, journalistic standards absolutely require it.”

He also directly quoted from the internal performance reviews of employees who said they received blistering reviews while at the company.

The paper reported that one employee had received a barrage of negative feedback through an internal tool. Carney said she had received only three reviews and quoted a positive sentence from one of them.

He also said the feedback tool is not anonymous, as the Times suggested, and was rarely used.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a question about whether employees are told that their performance reviews can be publicly released by the company.

Carney also published an email from Jodi Kantor, one of the reporters who worked on the story, in which she told a company executive that the paper was not working on a story comprised entirely of a “stack of negative anecdotes from ex-Amazonians.”

“We decided to participate by sharing much of what Ms. Kantor asked for, yet the article she specifically said they were not writing became the article that we all read,” Carney said. “And, despite our months-long participation, we were given no opportunity to see, respond to, or help fact-check the ‘stack of negative anecdotes’ that they ultimately used.”

He said that the company was publishing the post because the Times had not taken "action to correct the record."

In a Medium post on Monday, Times executive editor Dean Baquet defended the piece, saying it was the result of exhaustive reporting and that the claims in the article were echoes by many interviewees.

"Virtually every person quoted in the story stated a view that multiple other workers had also told us," he said. "In addition, we spoke to outsiders who interact with Amazon employees — recruiters, people at tech firms, employment lawyers — and heard their accounts."

Baquet also said that Olson denied that he had been accused of or admitted to personally committing fraud.

"If there were criminal charges against him, or some formal accusation of wrongdoing, we would certainly consider that," Baquet said. "If we had known his status was contested, we would have said so."

Baquet also addressed Amazon's review of performance records.

"The information for the most part, though, did not contradict what the former employees said in our story; instead, you mostly asserted that there were no records of what the workers were describing," he wrote. "Of course, plenty of conversations and interactions occur in workplaces that are not documented in personnel files."

The paper’s investigation made headlines and put Amazon on the defensive when it was published in August.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, said at the time that the story “doesn't describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.”

The story came amid a renewed focus on the way tech companies treat their workers. Some in Washington have expressed concerns that startups like Uber have built profitable businesses while failing to protect their workforce.

The allegations about Amazon, however, were particularly striking because they ran counter to the public’s image of the tech industry — where companies like Google and Facebook provide their workers with a surfeit of perks to attract top talent.

This story was updated at 12:50 p.m.