work-life-balanceAmazon has been making headlines lately.  And it’s not because the company is offering generous discounts on Amazon prime delivery.

Over the past few weeks, Amazon has been hit hard in the media after several current and former employees made allegations that the company pushes its employees to the brink and effectively forces out employees who take leaves of absence. 

In a lengthy exposé, the New York Times portrays an Amazon culture where employees are pushed to the limits of what is humanly acceptable, operating in a work environment where they are subjected to the ever-expanding ambitions of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. According to several employees interviewed by the New York Times, employees are:

Encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are “unreasonably high.” The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.

By any objective measure, it’s a scathing article, and it is particularly harsh on Mr. Bezos. Other (mostly) former employees have piled on, publicly calling out the company for its alleged mistreatment of employees, particularly those who take parental and other forms of leave.

In response to the New York Times article, Mr. Bezos immediately issued a memo to all Amazon employees rejecting any “shockingly callous management practices” described in the NYT article and urging any employees who knew of the alleged stories depicted in the article to contact him directly.

Insights for Employers

Knee-jerk reactions are aplenty when these kinds of news stories make the rounds. First, let’s take a deep breath. Now, let me share a few observations from my own soapbox:

1.  We Don’t Know What’s Happening at Amazon, so Let’s Not Jump to Conclusions. I have no idea whether any of these Amazon reports are true. I do not work at Amazon, nor do I serve as its counsel (though I have interacted with their leave of absence team and find them to be top-notch). So, I am throwing up the patented Walter Payton stiff-arm to any temptation to jump on the anti-Amazon bandwagon.

Let me say this — I admire a company that pushes its employees to be the very best and challenges them to contribute in the most innovative ways to grow the business. After all, “A” players want to play with other “A” players, and I fear that we often lose sight of this when openly criticizing companies like Amazon without experiencing the environment firsthand. I also respect a leader like Mr. Bezos when he candidly tells shareholders that it’s “not easy to work [at Amazon]” because the stakes are high. He calls it like it is, so employees and candidates alike are on notice of the demands of the job.

If you asked 100 people how they would define “hard work,” you’d get 100 different answers. Personally, I respect Virgin Group founder Richard Branson’s rallying call to “Work Hard, Play Hard” in reaching your best potential while achieving life balance. (Mr. Branson also is on the cutting edge of employee leave benefits.) Yet, in complimenting Branson/Virgin, I refuse to knock Mr. Bezos, who has been wildly successful in revolutionizing our marketplace through his company.

2.  Safeguarding Employee Leave Rights is One of the Key Ingredients to a Thriving Workplace. Being the “best,” however, rings hollow when an employer does not play its part in safeguarding its employees’ work and family-life balance.

I use my own experience as an example. Simply put, I have found that I am a far better advocate for and counselor to my employer clients because I am a father of four kids. I am more direct in negotiations, more confident and organized in my approach, and empathetic when it is appropriate. I also believe I am far more determined to succeed, in large part because I know I have a family to provide for.

I am fortunate enough to work for a law firm that celebrates the fact that I am a dad and have a family I need to provide and care for. Is this common in the legal arena? Not as common as it should be.

Don’t get me wrong — am I disappointed when I lose a colleague for a period of time because of parental leave or because they have to care for a severely ill parent? In a word, yes — just as much as I regret losing any colleague who leaves work for a period of time. But I also recognize their time away as priceless — whether it’s that precious time to bond with their new child, attend to their own illnes or walk together with their loved one at the end of life’s journey — I know they will be far healthier and stronger legal counselors as a result.

As employers, we surely have the right to demand the very best from our employees, as we have invested much in their and our success. But when we do so while also ensuring employees’ family life a priority, it’s a powerful thing. And workplaces thrive as a result.