Lessons from Amazon: How to Change Workplace Culture

A year ago, we published a post about the hiring decisions at Amazon and the questions Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, asks in the interview process to help the company hire people who will become superstars in the organization. Now Amazon is back in the news, but this time the story is not as positive. Despite being named in the top four Most Admired Companies in 2015 by Fortune magazine, Amazon was the focus of a New York Times article citing the company’s culture as a “bruising workplace,” featuring complaints by current and former employees about the lack of work/life balance, aggressive and competitive working conditions and unreasonably high standards.

As companies deal with bad publicity, responding to the public is one thing – what they actually do to improve is another. How should company leadership approach this bad publicity internally? For an answer, I turned to Kevin Henderson, assistant professor of management, to help identify the best steps company leaders can take to address internal concerns about workplace culture.

“I think Jeff Bezos has responded fairly well so far, although it remains to be seen whether it’s just lip service or not,” Henderson said. “His actions appear to match up with best practices though. He stated in initial interviews that the story did not ‘describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day,’ he sent a letter to employees stating that Amazon wouldn’t tolerate the ‘shockingly callous management practices’ noted in the article and he asked employees who knew of such stories to contact him immediately.”

With those first steps accomplished, Henderson said there are key actions a company like Amazon could make in order to shift their workplace culture:

1)    Establish a vision for the new culture. This vision should be frequently communicated to all employees in multiple ways (e.g. meetings, e-mails, memos, etc.).  If necessary, this communication should include the reasons for the change and why it is vital to the future of the company. If you don’t sell the employees on the need for change, everything else is for naught.

2)    Create processes that will support the new culture. These processes could include:

•    Setting up an anonymous phone line (or some other system) so employees can report behaviors that “violate” the new culture.

•    Providing training to managers on how to “sell” the new culture to their employees and letting people go who don’t comply with the new way of doing things.

•    Along with promoting and rewarding those employees who embrace the new culture, it’s important to change the hiring process in order to attract people who fit the new vision, not the old.

•    Assigning mentors to new employees who will model acceptable and positive ways to behave and communicate in the workplace.

•    Creating new stories, rituals, language and other symbols that support the new vision.

3)    Monitor the organizational climate to ensure the new culture is “sticking.” This involves making sure that the core elements of the culture are embedded in all units across the organization and continuing to regularly communicate the new vision to employees. Nip any issues that arise in the bud immediately. The new culture should become second nature to employees, but it will take time and patience so leaders need to remain vigilant and understand that it may take a year or two for the new culture to be fully embedded.

With all of this said, do you have recommendations based on your own experience? How would you handle a situation like the one within Amazon is in if your name happened to be Jeff Bezos?