Who’s Minding Amazon’s Store? Or Their Studio?

Amazon is famously proud of its Leadership Principles, but does the ongoing Studios scandal suggest they’re rather selective about when they apply them?

This post is by Chris McCabe, a former Amazonian and founder of ecommerceChris.com. ecommerceChris shows Amazon sellers how to keep their accounts healthy, or, if the worst should happen, how to get their account back from a suspension.

Recent news coverage and investigation of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged behavior has led to Amazon Studios and Roy Price, the studio’s head until he resigned three days ago. Two Weinstein Co. productions were in development with Amazon as recently as this week, and actress Rose McGowan publicly cited past complaints to Amazon Studios in regards to Weinstein.

As widely reported this week, Roy Price’s sexual harassment was originally reported by TV producer Isa Hackett in 2015 after an incident in San Diego. Amazon informed her of an investigation but did not inform her of the results. She did not receive an update, nor an apology, and as mentioned in the Bloomberg piece by Lucas Shaw and Spencer Soper, “Amazon hasn’t explained why it acted against Price now when Hackett first filed a complaint in 2015.”

The Wall Street Journal added: “Former Amazon employees said the only reprimand to Mr. Price was that he was told not to drink at company events anymore.” Amazon has not yet commented publicly on what other actions were taken in the aftermath of this event. Amazon has not presented any follow-up information on how management or executive behavior of this nature is evaluated, or monitored.

Much like Amazon’s recently canceled show, Z: The Beginning of Everything, it’s time to head back to the beginning, and review things from the top for potential improvements to Amazon’s management structure. I’ll take a look at one slice of how Amazon works internally, and see what lessons we can learn.

Chaos and Ugly Behaviors

Let’s dig into the recent chaos around Amazon Studios and the mushroom cloud concerning their now former Head of Amazon Studios, Roy Price. Already, some friction was swirling around Amazon Studios for lack of audiences and poor ratings performance.

Consumers… may be watching product created by people they’d rather stay away from.

At Amazon, bad performance should lead to poor performance reviews and managerial changes based on the demanding culture we all read about, right? Well, no, not always. It’s not the case on my former teams in TRMS (Transaction Risk Management Services), given the low quality work by performance and policy teams that my articles usually address. Now, we find this problem elsewhere in the company.

Clearly, what Laura Stevens of the WSJ referred to recently as Amazon’s “highly decentralized structure, with small, siloed teams” performing as “1000 different businesses” demonstrates the drawbacks to Amazon’s leadership principles. And what isn’t working on seller performance and policy enforcement teams now isn’t working in their entertainment divisions, indicating a more widespread problem that needs to be examined more thoroughly.

At Amazon Studios, not only did Roy Price continue to lead them into a low-rated wilderness, he’s also recently been accused of sexually harassing a TV producer, Isa Hackett. If that were not enough, Rose McGowan has accused Amazon Studios of ignoring her warnings months or even years ago about Harvey Weinstein’s past behavior, even to the point of tweeting Jeff Bezos directly. I haven’t seen Bezos reply to those, by the way, and I’m not sure we can expect him to. We’re all fortunate that Rose McGowan speaks out as often and as pointedly as she does, because otherwise, who knows how long some of these ugly behaviors would continue.

I come away from this topic with nothing but questions. Who’s minding the store? Who is watching Amazon Studios, or its studio head? How does Bezos manage his executives or assess their performance, AND their behavior? Are the leadership principles followed when it comes to protecting the workplace from rule-breakers and improper, unprofessional, or even lewd behavior? Did the investigation into Price’s behavior also land on Bezos’ desk?

We read a lot about Amazon’s “obsession” with customers, but dealings with the Harvey Weinsteins of the world means that consumers of Amazon’s original content may be watching product created by people they’d rather stay away from.

Amazon’s Leadership Principles

WSJ cited Amazon’s multiple leadership principles that guide employee behavior, focus and goals. Well, let’s talk about some employee behavior alongside its decentralized structure, for a moment. Stevens wrote of Amazon’s apparent need to split their enormous operations into two hubs, and the future need for executives to split up their time. This means, implicitly, less face-time with certain team subordinates. Will it also mean less oversight?

Let’s look at three core Amazon principles within the context of their Amazon Studios problems and consider what it might mean for other areas of the company.

Customer Obsession

Let’s start with customer obsession. When it comes to my former teams in Transaction Risk Management Services, the customer obsession directives were clear: protect buyers by ensuring a safe, effective, convenient marketplace.

But Amazon needs to obsess about how customers view their operations, too. Some stories about their workplace environment, or in this recent case, how the former Studios head behaved, may turn off even the most astute bargain hunters. Who decides who Amazon works with as partners? Who above them judges if those decisions were sound? I’d like to see Amazon proactively address these kinds of questions, to show their seriousness around these matters.

On a side note, is anyone watching these shows? All indications are that shows like Transparent win critical accolades but have poor viewership. At some point, Amazon Prime members need to like, or at least find interesting, the content provided by Amazon Studios when they have alternatives like Netflix to turn to. Netflix is beating their growth forecasts for a reason. People want to watch House of Cards a lot more than they want to watch Z for example, so a leadership change at the top of Amazon Studios was necessary regardless of bad behavior and harassment behind the scenes.

Ownership

Now let’s talk about their “Ownership” principle. According to this one: “Leaders think long term, and don’t trade long term goals for short term payoffs. They act on behalf of the entire company, beyond just their own team.”

It looks like it’s time for those monitoring executive performance and behavior to own the work of those who are tasked with charting success in a tough industry like entertainment. You’re only as good as the people you work with, to my way of thinking. If your partnerships get ugly, then that mud splatters on you, too. If leaders are owners, then Jeff Bezos needs to tackle this first hand, as Rose McGowan suggested.

Bias for Action

Let’s talk about a commonly quoted principle at Amazon, Bias for Action: “Speed matters [and] many decisions and actions are reversible [therefore they] do not require extensive study”.

In the WSJ story, Elaine Kwon, of Kwontified, a fellow former Amazonian, said: “Every team functions like an independent company. They’re all moving as quickly as they can because they’re given a lot of autonomy.” To this I say, maybe Amazon allows for a little too much autonomy, without scrutiny?

It’s time for Amazon to take faster action when it comes to executives or managers who are unable to move the needle in the direction of progress. People should not be measured only in terms of performance metrics. What about responsibility in the workplace, like making everyone feel that they’re evaluated on the merits of their contributions?

In Closing

I don’t think there’s too much you’d want to leave out when it comes to reassuring your employees that you’re doing everything possible to hear their concerns, and you’re willing to act when sexual harassment occurs.

We’ve all heard stories from friends or colleagues from time to time, and in the case of Isla Hackett, apparently a firm was hired to conduct an investigation into Roy Price’s behavior. The results appear inconclusive, as Amazon only suspended him last week. Did Amazon take any action to prevent future breaches of workplace policy? Are executives held to a different standard than rank-and-file employees at Amazon? I certainly hope not.

Chris McCabe can be contacted via ecommerceChris.com.

6 comments on “Who’s Minding Amazon’s Store? Or Their Studio?

  1. At some point, Price must have been making the company money, otherwise, why keep him around at all, even if there were no complaints? The harassment allegations are only coming to light because of the Weinstein scandal, now it’s time for a second look, and it looks like Price isn’t profitable, so they can get rid of him. This goes for any company in any industry, if you’re bringing in money, the powers that be will look the other way when you do something naughty.

    1. His father Frank was a studio head back in the 1990s. And as it usually works in Hollywood, hire hiring was based on his industry contacts and a bit of nepotism, I’m sure. It’s worth asking why he was hired or how he was vetted, certainly, but there was presumably a “name” element here when they were trying to expand Amazon Studios and make it a real player. It’s also worth asking why someone like Weinstein’s behavior is tolerated even if they are successful, naturally. There should be other criteria other than success.

      That said, someone may be less apt to be “screened” by a company like Amazon for potentially bad behavior if their family name is already known. He had some ability to produce hit shows that they wanted badly, and they still need that badly. Amazon has not had a “Game of Thrones” or a “House of Cards.” That’s another reason he left so fast, I believe, he hadn’t put up the kinds of success or numbers Amazon expects. They don’t lose much by losing him now. They also haven’t commented on why he lasted so long, which I find the most alarming.

  2. Quite frankly how anybody can expect an ethical response from a company that behave as amazon do beggars belief.

    This is a company that swallows up the marketplace and doesn’t care who loses out along the way, whether it be large businesses or small shopkeepers. You could accuse most businesses as behaving in a similar fashion but there are few, if any, out there who are as ruthless.

    The founder and CEO was protected and no doubt enjoying a millionaires lifestyle while many who had put money into the business lost fortunes in the crash last decade.

    Meantime on their marketplace they have systematically screwed sellers by preventing them from selling a successful item, only to come back a few days later with their own stock of the same item at a considerably inflated price, having killed the competition who were PAYING them to trade on their platform.

    There are also hundreds of thousands of sellers who for various reasons have had their accounts cancelled or suspended, and under Amazon’s rules have had their FBA stock effectively confiscated. When they do return it they charge per-item. When I was suspended they charged me over £1000 to return 6 boxes of items that would have cost under £50 by any other carrier.

    That’s IN ADDITION to the money they have refused to give back to suspended sellers. I got mine, but I’ll bet there are tens of thousands, maybe more, who have lost literally millions of cash from sales that Amazon refused to pay them back after they were suspended. I know of one seller who lost £300,000.

    Add to that the tax loopholes they have jumped through in Europe and the UK in particular to avoid paying a single penny in taxes, the zero-hour basic rate contracts, exploiting those who are desperate for work and money, and, well, you get the picture.

    This are only the things I’m aware of. I’m sure it’s only the tip of the iceberg and I wonder how much money Amazon make that isn’t actually their to keep or isn’t by some underhand method that isn’t screwing somebody else along the way.

    I refuse to either trade or buy anything from them ever again. I only wish more people knew the truth and acted accordingly, but sadly to most people saving a few quid is more important.

    1. They definitely use their leverage and tax attorneys in the US and UK/ EU to avoid paying any more than they have to, agreed there 100%. I’ve seen the account suspensions and held funds. As I noted in this piece, the Amazon Studios mess also calls into question how other teams are handled or managed internally, including my former teams. We all have to see what kinds of changes they will make in terms of internal team audits or “managing the managers” when it comes to TRMS, and improving performance around behavior, not just the team metrics or numbers. Both need to be assessed.

  3. That’s the problem though isn’t it. For most businesses, not just Amazon, it will mostly be about damage limitation in the public eye, not about making real change. A case of seeing to be doing something rather than actually doing something that will make a real difference.

    That’s all that ever happens when any sort of scandal hits the fan and that’s why nothing ever really changes. There are too many reports of this sort of incident going on, but is anything really being done to change it?

  4. Well with the seller account problems I work on daily, Amazon usually demands that sellers take proactive actions and lay them all out credibly, and definitively, in their account appeals. It would be nice if Amazon could be proactive, too, not simply reacting after the fact once there’s a complaint like this. It sounds like they were well aware of a problem. The scandals are often what motivates institutional behavior changes, so one would hope that they’ll get the message now and put some oversight into place or create HR procedure audits to facilitate a more proactive approach going forward. They can’t change the past, but they can certainly make Amazon’s present a lot more tolerable for employees and greatly reduce the future likelihood that this happens. It’s not just about the public image, they have to be interested in a safe and comfortable workplace environment.

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