Why It’s So Hard to Get Promoted at Amazon

Getting a promotion at Amazon isn’t easy. Indeed, some say the process is brutal. And moving up may have more do to with your boss’s ability to present your case than how well you actually perform your job.

Amazon Book Cover The Eveything StoreAccording to a new book that describes life inside the online retail giant, promotion at Amazon requires having a boss willing to go to bat for you against his or her peers. Your boss also can’t have been recently promoted. And it doesn’t hurt to brown-nose every manager above you, lest any one of them stop your promotion dead in its tracks.

This system – created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – is supposed to reduce internal politics and create something of a meritocracy. But it can have quite the opposite effect, writes longtime tech journalist Brad Stone in his book, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

“Most Amazon employees know the OLR [or ‘organization and leadership review’] as the meeting where careers and livelihoods can be won and lost in an instant,” writes Stone in Bloomberg Businessweek. The OLRs are held twice a year.

Say you’ve worked tirelessly at Amazon for several years. You approach your boss, asking for a promotion and a raise, and he agrees. Good news, right? Not so fast. The boss, perhaps a vice president, attends an OLR that begins as most Amazon meetings do: With everyone reading printouts of a six-page “narrative” detailing the meeting’s agenda.

After your boss’s fellow VPs quietly sit and read the pros and cons of your promotion, a debate follows, with various execs weighing in with their own experiences working with you.

According to Stone, the discussions can become heated, as only a limited number of promotions are handed out. Every promotion given means someone else missed out, leading managers to promote their own picks and work against other managers’ choices.

“So if you get bumped up, someone else’s favorite subordinate might have to stand still. Anyone in the room can sink a promotion,” Stone concludes.

Thus, a system intended to stop political promotions and apply Bezos’ values evenly across the corporation can have quite the opposite effect. Writes Stone: “Ambitious employees tend to spend months having lunch and coffee with their boss’s peers to ensure a positive outcome once the topic of their proposed promotion is raised in an OLR.”

Working for the proper manager is also important, as newly promoted managers are sometimes unable to get any subordinates bumped up for years.

4 Responses to “Why It’s So Hard to Get Promoted at Amazon”

  1. Pat Saison

    Sounds convoluted and bureaucratic, and rather perverse. All those fancy methods fail in comparison to a regular organization having some good bosses who know how to manage, take care of their employees, and focus upon the objectives and tasks. Nothing fancy is needed.

    Prevents employees from focusing solely on doing their jobs, Very tiring. Why can’t employees just doing their jobs, strive to do a good job, and let the promotions take care of themselves as a reward for their accomplishments? Strange.

  2. You’re really off the mark. Having a “good boss” as you say means one thing, you’ve managed to get one person into your good graces.

    The Amazon process is designed to be impartial and have people from all walks of life independently validate your merits without knowing you.

    Literally letting your good work speak for itself. Not just the guy you work for having his desires fulfilled as you suggest.

    Having experienced it from the inside, I’d have to say you have no idea what you’re talking about.

    • Joe Dever

      You experienced what? L4 to L5? Amazon’s promotion process is designed to be as opaque and political as possible. The reality is that the promotion process is designed to prevent progression, as much as possible. The company wants people to leave, they want you to leave the moment you expect something more. The senior leadership committee which decided on your promotion often has no interactions with you throughout the year. A single influential member of the committee can make or break a person’s progression, because most stakeholders won’t have the slightest idea about who the candidate is, or what area the person works in. The decision to promote is taken well before the committee meets, and the only way to work around this is to completely neglect your duties and work up your relationships with the decision makers. Amazon’s promotion process fails completely to be Amazonian, and it’s a stain on the company’s culture.