Amazon’s Executives Are Speaking Out

 

Amazon and its subsidiaries, including Amazon Web Services, are beginning to come under fire from current and former corporate-level employees, who are suing over what they claim to be a toxic and discriminatory work environment.

 

‘I Wouldn’t Want My Worst Enemy Working There’

By: Trey Heller & CJ Rosenbaum

 

Cindy Warner joined the corporate staff at Amazon Web Services (AWS) in February 2020. With over 30 years of experience working as an executive in the tech industry, she believed that she was going to be a part of a changing culture with added diversity. Warner told The Guardian that she was recruited heavily by AWS and was offered greater opportunities to acquire higher-level positions within the company. However, after just over a year, she had found herself re-evaluating the workplace culture at AWS.

Warners Lawsuit

Warner subsequently sued AWS in May 2021, citing that she was subject to pay discrimination and that the culture at the company was defined by sexism and homophobia. Warner says, “I truly would not want my worst enemy to work at Amazon.” Warner, who is gay, goes on to claim that her male colleagues upheld a “white boys’ club” and acted with open hostility towards her. She was fired shortly after filing her lawsuit and facing the torment of her peers for 15 months, an act she has described as retaliatory. Warner also claims she was targeted specifically because of her efforts to increase diversity and inclusion at AWS, particularly with regards to women. She had personally mentored women within the company before her firing.

Lawsuits against Amazon

Warner is one of many current and former Amazon employees who are suing the corporation over discrimination. Around the same time Warner filed her lawsuit, four other women sued Amazon over allegations of discrimination. Additionally, Warner is one of a number of executives who are suing Amazon as well. Charlotte Newman and Brittany Hope are examples of former high-level Amazon employees who have filed their own lawsuits over discrimination and prejudice. 

“All Americans have the right to a workplace free of discriminatory practices. The conduct discussed in the allegations is horrific. If it is Amazon, the second largest employer in the country, or any other employer, they should be held responsible and I believe there should be two remedies. One: financial compensation…significant financial compensation. Two: court-ordered change to their employment practices.” -CJ

These lawsuits, along with Warner’s, have shown the failure of Amazon, and the tech industry as a whole, to become more inclusive and adopt a progessive attitude towards women. Amazon has disputed Warner’s allegations of discrimination, with spokesperson Jaci Anderson claiming that AWS had completed an investigation which concluded that Warner’s claims were inaccurate. Anderson also stated that Warner was encouraged to find another job within AWS before being terminated, instead of Warner being forced out after facing toxic workplace behavior.

Warners history at Amazon

Warner started at Amazon in February 2020 working for their subsidiary ProServe, a consulting firm which promotes AWS for use by corporate clients, as a “global leader.” Much like other companies owned by Amazon and other tech corporations, Warner’s position was tiered and given salary and duties accordingly. According to Warner, however, she believed that she was placed in a lower tier than she was qualified for, and was also one of a small number of female employees in her tier. She also claimed she was blocked from applying to positions in higher tiers, a result of the underlying sexist culture present at Amazon. Warner believes that this behavior cost her opportunities to get promoted within the company and lost her substantial amounts of income. Amazon disputes these claims as well, saying that Warner was not promised regular promotions and that employees are reviewed internally for said promotions instead of selected via application.

Warner’s lawsuit alleges that she also faced regular harassment from male colleagues. One such male employee is reported to have called Warner “bitch,” “idiot,” and “nobody.” Furthermore, said male colleague was eventually promoted by Amazon into a role that Warner had previously attempted to apply to. Warner has also claimed that male colleagues have made homophobic comments directed towards her. Amazon has stated that its investigation had found these claims untrue as well, and that the specific names Warner was allegedly called were never used. This pattern of behavior at Amazon is not uncommon, however. As attorney Lawrence Pearson has stated, “Amazon allows its managers…to run amok and mistreat employees, particularly women and people of color…”

As Warner struggled to assimilate into her managerial role, her sentiments about Amazon were validated after reading “Why I Left AWS,” a blog post by Laudon Williams that outlines many discriminatory incidents that occured during his time with the company. Among Williams’ allegations were an incident in which an executive told a diversity group to “integrate better,” an incident where the same executive was reported by a women’s forum and cleared of wrongdoing, and an incident where Williams heard an executive use homophobic language at work. According to Williams, “AWS shows no interest in addressing the issues” of discrimination that permeate their workplace culture. Warner claims that Williams’ blog had shaken AWS internally and led them to double down on their inappropriate behavior. Warner recalled one incident in which a black female employee was aggressively berated for discussing the blog with her bosses, and ultimately quit her job. Warner began to recognize the patterns of behavior at AWS that Williams described, saying, “I have never in my career seen a company so unwilling to be introspective…” Again, Amazon has disputed these claims by both Warner and Williams, with Anderson stating that their investigations had found no evidence of the incidents described and that while employees were discouraged from discussing Williams’ blog, they were not “verbally assaulted” about it.

Another example of mistreatment 

The tech industry as a whole has come under fire for its treatment of female employees, including higher-level executives. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest have all faced legal action from former female employees over their poor treatment. But Amazon specifically has begun to come under more scrutiny as more female employees speak out against the discriminatory workplace culture within the company. In Newman’s case, allegations of sexual assault are made, with Newman alleging that she was groped by a supervisor at a company event. Newman, who is a black woman, also alleges that the same supervisor used physical force on her by pulling on her braids and saying, “You can leave this behind.” On top of this, Newman claims that AWS had failed to hire black employees in high-level tiers for years at a time and that she was also denied promotions to positions she was more qualified for. Amazon instead claims that Newman was “properly placed in her role” and that the male executive that acted inappropriately towards her was terminated.

Newman, Warner, and Williams all agree that Amazon is too slow to discourage this poor behavior, enough such that it feeds into and upholds the discriminatory standards within the company that they are trying to change. Despite Amazon referring to its code of conduct and ethics outlining a zero tolerance policy regarding these behaviors, according to Pearson, “Women and employees of color at all levels of Amazon have had their complaints of harassment and discrimination brushed under the rug.” 

Are these issues being resolved?

The increase in lawsuits against Amazon as well as Williams’ blog have prompted corporate employees within the company to demand answers. Over 550 employees signed a petition urging Amazon to investigate the issues within the company, citing both Warner’s lawsuit and Williams’ blog post. The petition states that Amazon has had “an underlying culture of systemic discrimination” against women, people of color, and other under-represented groups. AWS CEO Andy Selipsky emailed the authors of the petition stating that the company would investigate, but did not commit to a timeframe. Anderson has declined to comment further on the investigation. Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos has also acknowledged that Amazon needs to improve for its employees.

The verbal commitments made by Amazon, however, do not line up with their actions. Andy Jassy has recently taken over as Amazon’s CEO after serving as an executive at AWS, showing how Amazon continues to hide its responsibility. Warner herself had written to both Jassy and Selipsky and received no help; “Someone wants to help you and you turn them into an enemy.” Amazon has stated that HR had encouraged Warner to use her attorneys to contact Jassy and Selipsky, and that Amazon “has always operated with the belief that more diverse teams create better outcomes” with regard to the leadership of Jassy, who is a white man. This is not enough, however, according to many. Veena Dubal, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings, states, “The fact that Jassy was promoted from a particular sector at Amazon that was known to have a culture of misogyny and sexism does not speak well for the direction the company is going.”

Warner says that other current and former employees of Amazon and other tech companies have reached out to her about their own cases and how to proceed. Williams has also said that Amazon employees reached out to him to share their own similar experiences. Williams claims that these employees have related to his story deeply, further showing how the issues within the company are systemic and not incidental. Warner has been looking for a new job as her case continues, and says that she has nearly been discouraged from applying for similar roles at other tech companies due to her unnecessarily poor experience at AWS. “After what I would consider has been a very storied career, this has been a horror show, and I relive it every day,” Warner says. “When you go through something like this, it really changes you. It doesn’t go away.”