Tech Buzz

Amazon, NYT Revive Workplace Culture Brouhaha

Amazon and The New York Times this week engaged in a rehash of their dispute over the publication this summer of a story that describes harsh working conditions at the company.

NYT reporter Jodi Kantor misled Amazon, alleged spokesperson Jay Carney, as she failed to challenge the credibility of former Amazon employees whose negative comments formed the backbone of the story.

Some of the interviewees’ accounts lacked context, he said.

The New York Times’ public editor has called out the paper for bias and hype in its coverage twice in less than a year, and the Amazon story was one of those occasions, Carney noted, quoting a statement to underscore his point.

The article “was driven less by irrefutable proof than by generalization and anecdote. For such a damning result, presented with so much drama, that doesn’t seem like quite enough,” Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote in her critique.

The Amazon employees quoted expressed admiration for Amazon’s ambitions and urgency while highlighting issues in the workplace, wrote NYT Executive Editor Dean Baquet in a response to Carney’s post.

Many of the nearly 6,000 people commenting on the NYT website said they or their relatives had similar experiences, Baquet noted.

Carney’s rebuttal “just spreads the story further,” Pace University marketing professor Larry Chiagouris told TechNewsWorld. “It’s not a smart move.”

Muddy Water

One of the objections Carney raised was that the NYT highlighted negative comments by former Amazon employee Bo Olson, without taking the trouble to look into his credibility. Olson resigned after he was caught falsifying business records to cover up an attempt to defraud vendors, Carney said.

Former employees Elizabeth Willet and Chris Bracia — whose complaints of rough treatment through feedback and reviews were featured in the NYT article — actually had received positive feedback, Carney maintained.

Further, Dina Vaccari, whose account of going without sleep for four days straight appeared to illustrate Amazon’s unreasonable demands on employees, emphasized in her own response to the NYT piece that putting in those hours was her own choice, and that other factors contributed to her sleeplessness at the time.

“When there are two sides to a story, a reader deserves to know them both,” Carney said.

Standing Ground

Correspondence between NYT reporter Kantor and Amazon show that topics discussed “relatively early on” included Amazon’s reputation as a difficult place to work and complaints of a culture of criticism, the Times’ Baquet pointed out.

Also, Olson disputed Amazon’s account of his departure, Baquet said, insisting that he never was confronted with allegations of personally fraudulent conduct or falsifying records, and that he did not admit to that.

The Times “never said Amazon was forcing Vaccari to work that hard,” Baquet added.

Amazon “attempted to portray the criticisms used in the original story as being somehow exceptional or unusual, but in each case [Baquet] showed instead that they were individual indicators of larger injustices and broader trends,” observed Charles King, principal at Pund-IT.

If Amazon continues the fight, it “might well shoot itself in the opposite foot,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Memories Are Short

Regardless of the sparring, “Amazon will prevail as if nothing happened,” predicted Andreas Scherer, managing partner at Salto Partners.

“We Americans have an attention span that’s less than that of a goldfish,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Amazon may not be able to shake this off without damage to its image, however.

The company “must address the core issues raised by its former employees and respond to these findings with authentic and decisive action,” cautioned Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, a vice president at the Reputation Institute.

It must then “communicate effectively with the general public,” he told TechNewsWorld, “to establish belief and confidence as it looks to reaffirm its reputation.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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