If you’ve been anywhere near the news media over this past week, you’ve no doubt heard that Amazon.com — and its corporate culture — have been under heavy fire.

It all started with an article by the New York Times this past Sunday (available here) that chronicled a series of alleged worker abuses and painted the picture of a corporate culture built around bullying, workaholism, and the requirement that employees devote themselves to the company’s interests in almost cult-like fashion.  The stories cited include Amazon workers being encouraged to anonymously blow the whistle on their colleagues, upon witnessing poor performance, to anecdotes about employees with illnesses or family emergencies being fired for allowing their attention to drift away from their work responsibilities.

Needless to say, this article hit a proverbial nerve, inspiring over 5,000 comments from readers — many expressing sentiments such as the following:

“I had some idea that Amazon was a tough, demanding place to work, but the conditions described in this article are sickening. It makes me question why I would want to continue to buy from a company that treats its employees so poorly.”

“I use Amazon’s services frequently. But jeez, can’t there be middle ground between pedal-to-the-metal employee abuse and a mentally healthy workplace?”

“It is very upsetting to think of people suffering at work in this way. Many of us have also been damaged because of hateful or sick people and policies in other workplaces as well. It’s sad and disgusting. And leaving isn’t always possible for various reasons. Sometimes you just keep thinking it will get better.”

On the flip side, as soon as the article was published, several impassioned postings also sprang up (such as the one you’ll find here) from folks who work at Amazon, defending the company and claiming that the New York Times article was a poorly-researched “hit piece” that took a few extreme examples and characterized them as the norm.  Here are some samplings of comments from people who dispute the article’s claims about Amazon or who take issue with the concept that people should be complaining about these issues to begin with:

“I’ve worked at Amazon for over 8.5 years and it bears little resemblance to this article. My work/life balance has been wonderful and it has been the least confrontational company I’ve every worked at.”

“Amazon is a tough workplace, BUT makes people better by not accepting excuses or poor work like most firms. It forces clarity of thought, rejecting intellectual laziness and vague ideas.”

“The article is wrong, so wrong but those reading it who think working at Amazon is bruising should try working as a waiter/waitress or a firefighter/EMT for one shift, just one, and see how well they hold up.”

All in all, the debate around this issue represents tensions that have been brewing in America for quite a few years now.  While on one hand the economy is statistically doing pretty well these days, and the unemployment rate has gone down, it’s a very polarized reality.  There are still plenty of people struggling to find employment of any kind to begin with — as well as a healthy contingent of folks stuck in burnout jobs that may be meeting their financial needs, but are allowing them precious little time to do much else.

And yet, as many commenters suggest, perhaps these stories are really much ado about nothing.  Their argument would be that we live in a free country, after all, and those people not interested in working under such conditions can simply choose to leave — or can avoid joining the ranks of such a company in the first place.  This was the attitude displayed by Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer a few years back, for example, when she took quite a bit of heat regarding her decision to eliminate telecommuting and other family-friendly perks at Yahoo.  Her response was basically “we’re telling you about our culture up front and if you don’t like it, hey, don’t work here.”  Along similar lines, I remember the words of one impassioned TED talk I watched a few years back, where a former management consultant encouraged society to just finally admit that there are now “numerous jobs and career paths that are fundamentally incompatible with the responsibilities of raising a family” and end the pretense of suggesting true work/life balance was an achievable goal for all.

So it’s a sticky issue, for sure.  And while I’m sure all of you out there have your own take on it, to me, there are really just two key actionable takeaways that job hunters should concentrate on when hearing these stories.  For starters, if you’re a professional on the hunt for a new assignment, make sure to conduct an appropriate amount of due discipline on your next employer’s culture before taking a job there.  There are several tried-and-true ways that this can be accomplished:

1) Review the company’s ratings on sites like glassdoor.com, careerbliss.com, and the Indeed.com company forums; while sure, you have to take some of this commentary with a grain of salt, you’ll still gain a general sense of the company’s labor practices and reputation

2) Identify current/former employees of the company and then reach out to solicit their opinions on what it’s like to work there; the LinkedIn “people search” function makes this a breeze and I’ve had many clients use this approach to avoid making a bad career move

3) Trust your instincts; ask lots of questions during the interview process, carefully study the attitudes and reactions of the people you deal with, and pay close attention to how you’re treated throughout the “courtship” ritual — since it’s likely a pretty reliable sign of what’s to come

On an individual level, those are the best techniques I can suggest for dodging the possibility of becoming trapped in a corporate culture that doesn’t match your values or won’t effectively meet your work/life balance needs.  And on a societal level, if you truly feel that some companies like Amazon.com are crossing the line and engaging in unethical practices, all you can really do is vote with your pocketbook and choose to throw your business to their competitors.  While in some cases an organization might stray far enough that more serious parties end up getting involved (such as the ACLU’s recently-launched investigation into Amazon, described here) it’s ultimately going to be collective action on the part of individual consumers that propels any significant change.

No question, though, this Amazon story is going to be a really interesting one to watch play out…