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CEO Jeff Bezos says a New York Times report on Amazon’s employment practices ‘does not describe the Amazon I know.’

Robert Galbraith/REUTERS

If Amazon really were the "soulless, dystopian workplace" recently portrayed in a damning New York Times article about employment conditions at the online retail giant, anyone would "be crazy to stay," company founder and chief executive officer Jeff Bezos contends in a letter to the 180,000 "Amazonians" who work for him.

"I know I would leave such a company."

It's a place, The New York Times reported, where employees are encouraged to rip into others' ideas at meetings, where many are driven to tears by public belittling, where the hours are brutal, and where the internal phone directory instructs employees how to submit secret feedback on their colleagues' perceived shortcomings.

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Mr. Bezos said in his letter to staff that the Amazon depicted in the Aug. 16 article "does not describe the Amazon I know." But the story has resonated around the world as employers and employees grapple with how to manage the pressure of 24/7 demands in a labour market where it is not so easy for employees to up and quit.

"The mistake in the Amazon story would be to think it's only Amazon. It's the so-called New Economy," says Julian Barling, a professor of organizational behaviour and psychology at Queen's School of Business in Kingston, and author of The Science of Leadership (available for purchase on Amazon).

It takes integrity, resilience and moral courage for lower-level managers and supervisors in such hard-driving organizational settings to quietly buck the process. In the process of treating their employees well and buffering them from unreasonable demands, they win loyalty that money can't buy, Prof. Barling says.

"I am convinced, if you go through the ranks of Amazon, that you will find amazing stories about extraordinary leadership dotted throughout," he said. It can exact a toll on managers who act according to conscience rather than edict, but not doing the right thing also exacts an emotional toll on managers who act contrary to their principles.

In his letter, Mr. Bezos directed employees to "escalate to HR … [or] e-mail me directly" if they know of any of the "shockingly callous management practices" relayed in the Times article, including anecdotes about women who had suffered miscarriages, or people with cancer receiving harsh performance appraisals, or being edged out of the company when they could not keep up with the torrid pace.

The reality is the majority of employees who have been the target of abusive behaviour in the workplace do not file complaints, either because they have no faith that the human resources department will act or they fear reprisals, Toronto-based employment law firm Rubin Thomlinson LLP says in a summary of the most recent research on workplace bullying.

"Just because you [the employer] are not hearing about it doesn't mean it isn't there," says employment lawyer Janice Rubin, co-founder and managing partner of Rubin Thomlinson. "To me, one of the most interesting aspects of all the studies is the extent to which the bad behaviour goes underground.

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"In fact, only a fraction ever gets reported or complained about by the employee." That is, until stories of abuse suddenly crop up on the front pages of national newspapers or circulate through social media channels.

The New York Times story quoted Amazon managers who justified the workplace culture and some employees – authorized to speak – who said they thrived at Amazon because it pushed them past what they felt they were capable of achieving.

"It's the glorification of abuse – this is how we innovate, this is how we create, this is how we get the best and the brightest," Ms. Rubin says.

Canada has nothing to be complacent about in this regard, in spite of the growing number of provincial jurisdictions (Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories) that have general statutory provisions designed to protect employees from psychological harassment. Federally, more than 350 women are currently seeking court approval to proceed with a class-action lawsuit alleging pervasive harassment and discrimination against women in the RCMP.

Rubin Thomlinson was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. to conduct an internal investigation into what might have happened in-house following published allegations of abusive behaviour outside of work by star radio host Jian Ghomeshi.

CBC opted to release the findings and recommendations, with a view to improving the broadcaster's workplace culture. The investigators found that while Mr. Ghomeshi's "star was allowed to rise" at CBC, his problematic behaviour – "yelling, belittling, humiliating," in the words of the report – was left unchecked. Other, more serious, allegations regarding Mr. Ghomeshi's activities outside the office are now before the courts. He was fired in October, 2014, after CBC management said it had received information that precluded it from continuing to employ him.

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Because much of the alleged abuse in the CBC went unreported, Rubin Thomlinson recommended that surveys and spot audits be conducted by an independent third party.

The Conference Board of Canada said in a recent report that the first step in addressing bullying at the organizational level is to establish a common understanding of what constitutes bullying. Typically, for the target, workplace bullying is degrading, intentional, cumulative, associated with a power imbalance and exacerbated by slow and ineffective management actions or processes, say co-authors Jae Fratzl and Ruth McKay, an associate professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business.

The occasional raised voice during a heated discussion is not normally construed as bullying, nor is a boss's request that an employee do the work he or she was hired to do, the report concluded.

BULLYING FROM BOTH SIDES

Competitive pressures and workplace stress are key contributors to bullying behaviour in organizations where employees are pushed hard to produce, the Conference Board of Canada of Canada said in a recent report. And often, but not always, it comes from the top.

"Some of the most destructive workplace bullying happens at the top of an organization, where much of the power resides," write the report's co-authors Ruth McKay and Jae Fratzl. "Because management is held responsible for short-term results, they may push employees to work hard or they may set unrealistic goals that create an environment of criticism and intolerance that trickles down through an organization."

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While some managers may be unaware of a bullying problem in the ranks below them, "calculating managers may be fully aware of a bullying situation, but favour employees who get good results by being tough," the report said.

"These employees can be good at 'managing up,' so senior management focuses on the positive results, rather than on the casualties along the way. "Management may choose to keep employees who display bullying behaviours if they are high performers and get the job done."

But sometimes, the bosses themselves are the targets of what the report authors call "bottom-up" bullying.

Ms. Fratzl said this type of harassment can come from "employees further down, trying to work their way up" by discrediting their immediate supervisors, typically through e-mail messages to more senior managers in the organization.

Virginia Galt

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