November 12, 2015 BestCompaniesAZ

CEO Disease at Amazon – Keeping Your Employer Brand Healthy

Two companies made big news recently for all the wrong reasons; Subway and Amazon. Both scenarios involve damage to well-respected brands, but while the Subway crisis was black and white, the Amazon culture controversy has generated many different points of view. In case you just got back from a wilderness media-fast, here’s the story.

New York Times writers Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld stand by the report and its accuracy, defending the use of copious anecdotal evidence to tell the story. Not everyone agrees with their dystopian view. Redfin CEO Glenn Kelman supports Amazon’s work ethic, stating that tech firms that are “cosseting” tech employees have turned them into “well-fed farm animals.”

Former and current Amazon employees I know are divided. Some enjoyed working at Amazon, some declared the report to be spot-on, and others blamed the culture issues on bad middle managers.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos declared that “This is not the Amazon I know”. That’s not surprising, and is likely a major part of the problem. CEOs often don’t know what happens in the trenches. Preston McMurry Jr, founder of one the largest content marketing agencies in the US, once observed that layers of management insulate senior leaders from cultural problems. He referred to it as “CEO disease”.

Bezos has made no secret of his high expectations for employees. CEO disease also includes a peculiar symptom; if the CEO sneezes, the company gets pneumonia. Bezos’ insistence on extreme hard work likely was expanded to an even more extreme cultural environment in the trenches.

Employer brand – or how people experience the company’s culture – is every bit as important as consumer brand. One spokesperson gone bad will severely damage a consumer brand. Untold damage to employer brands is done by bad managers whose poor people practices chip away at a company’s culture and image. Bad managers will damage an employer brand as surely as a perverted spokesperson will damage a consumer brand; it might just take a little longer. When Subway became aware of Jared’s criminal activity, they released him immediately, as you’d expect. Bad managers, however, are all too often tolerated within organizations.

Some lessons for CEOs:

  • Building the culture is one of your most important roles. Keep your eyes on the ball and be aware of CEO disease.
  • Protect your employer brand as if it were as valuable as your consumer brand – because it is.
  • Don’t tolerate bad managers. Coach them up or fire them.
  • Understand the difference between a hardworking culture and a workaholic culture. The former is sustainable, the latter is not.

Some lessons for employees:

  • Focus your career search on companies with award-winning cultures, like those found on BestCompaniesAZ.
  • Interview the companies you are interested in; don’t just let them interview you. Even among top companies, not all may be the right fit for you.
  • Turn down offers from companies you aren’t confident will support your personal values.
  • Don’t allow yourself to feel victimized. Fix a bad situation if it’s in your power, take your talents elsewhere if it’s not.
  • Contribute to your company’s culture in a positive way.

About the Author

Lee Vikre – Hiring Jedi
A workplace culture maven, writer, and speaker, Lee Vikre has helped numerous companies develop “best company” cultures, gaining recognition at the local and national level. Lee has been called the Jedi Master of hiring because of her exceptional recruiting abilities and friendships with people who love Star Wars. Her favorite activities involve matching people with their dream jobs at award-winning best companies.  Lee coaches CEOs but still hasn’t been able to train her three dogs not to bark during conference calls.