Amazon Suicide Attempt: Sometimes Big Events Lead to Big Change…

Kris Dunn Culture, Engagement and Satisfaction, Kris Dunn

The title says it all – sometimes it takes big events to lead to big change.

Back in 2015, Amazon came under fire following a shocking piece from the New York Times exposing the company’s toxic cut-throat working environment.  If you’re fairly well-read and in the talent game, you saw the article and wondered aloud what it was really like to work at Amazon.

But as quick as the story came on the scene, it went away. CEO Jeff Bezos was quick to deny the claims, and there were plenty of counter-pieces that came out suggesting that some people love the high competition, “eat your own” mentality that’s apparently in play at Amazon.

Like my mom used to say, it’s all fun and games until somebody jumps out of a building. OK, she never said that – it was about sticks in the eye, etc.   But someone at Amazon has jumped out of a building, apparently in response to some type of workplace stress.  More from this Bloomberg report:

A distressed Amazon employee has jumped off a building at the company’s Seattle headquarters in what police have described as a suicide attempt. The incident occurred on Monday around 8:45AM local time. The man has survived the fall and has since been taken to a hospital in Seattle, police said.

According to a person familiar with the matter, the employee, whose name wasn’t revealed by authorities, sent a distraught email note to CEO Jeff Bezos and co-workers prior to leaping off. Bloomberg writes:

The man had recently put in a request to transfer to a different department, but was placed on an employee improvement plan, a step that can lead to termination if performance isn’t improved, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing company personnel matters.

The anonymous source further said that, in the email, the employee voiced his frustrations with how Amazon handled his transfer request and hinted that he might harm himself.

Damn. Somebody jumped out of a building at Amazon in Seattle (The picture at the top of this post is of the Amazon Apollo building from Google Earth- note Space Needle to the right of the building).

As a leader in any company, it’s easy to rationalize that the things that make working at your company difficult are also what provide your competitive advantage.  Sometimes that’s true and sometimes that’s rationalization (also known as bull****).

But when bad things happen that are directly linked to the difficult aspects of your culture, it’s a powerful call for change.

Foxconn in China is a primary supplier of iPhones and other consumer electronics around the globe.  They have a long history of bringing in workers from rural parts of China to work in the urban areas. The rural workers stay in dorms on campus, etc.

At some point, the workers figured out they could do more for their families back home by committing suicide and taking advantage of life insurance included in their jobs.  The only thing that was holding them back was whether they enjoyed their jobs/existence enough to live.

Since making your teenage daughter’s iPhone isn’t a dream job, suicides began to happen.  So much so, that Foxconn put up suicide nets around the dorm buildings to catch the would be life insurance executors.

After those suicide nets began to be reported on, Apple and other companies started to get aggressive to influence working conditions at Foxconn, etc.

What’s all that mean for Amazon?  Here’s what we know, and what I predict:

  1. One suicide? That could happen to anyone.
  2. More than one suicide? That would be an epic problem. 
  3. Amazon won’t change a thing based on this suicide attempt.
  4. BUT – if another big event like this suicide attempt happens, they’ll be forced to go on a listening tour and take the rough edges off their culture- ASAP.

Just ask Foxconn. It’s all about business margins and continues to be so  – until the world found out that suicide nets were a viable business expense.

Amazon won’t change their hard-charging culture over this suicide attempt.  But there are important people in the company currently looking around, hoping that no copycats emerge within their workplace.

Maybe your problems aren’t so big after all.  As a company and as an individual.