Is Amazon avoiding promoting their black employees?

By: Trey Heller & CJ Rosenbaum

A recent lawsuit has brought to light the truth behind Amazon’s methods of promoting their Black employees. Amazon is being sued by Black cloud-computing manager over alleged racial discrimination and sexual harassment

Lawsuit against Amazon 

As reported by the Seattle Times 1 on March 1, 2021 Amazon’s senior manager has filed a discrimination lawsuit filed against Amazon that reveals the drastic difference between Amazon’s public statements that Amazon is committed to racial equality and how Amazon actually treats their nonwhite employees. Charlotte Newman filed the federal lawsuit in Washington D.C. and
claimed that Amazon paid her less than her equally qualified white peers and that executives racially profiled to justify their actions. Newman is a black woman who works in Washington D.C. for Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is Amazon’s cloud computing division. Also adding to her allegations sexual assault and harassment against a former Amazon director. “Like so many other Black and female employees at Amazon, Charlotte Newman was confronted with a systemic pattern of insurmountable discrimination based upon the color of her skin and her gender,” her lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, wrote in the complaint.

Why was the lawsuit filed?

Newman filed her lawsuit after an investigation by Recode was released that detailed the allegations from Black employees that Amazon routinely passed over for promotions. Amazon is currently investigating the new allegations that are included in this lawsuit, said an Amazon spokesperson in a statement. Also stating that Amazon works hard to foster a diverse, equitable, and inclusive culture, and these allegations do not include those efforts or our values and they do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind and throughly investigate all claims and take appropriate action.

This lawsuit comes at a time when there is a large amount of Amazon employees organizing around the issues of racial equity within Amazon. Amazon has been repeatedly voicing their public support for Black employees and the Black Lives Matter movement by posting on social media, the Amazon website, and even flying a pan-African flag being flown between Amazon buildings. Newman describes these gestures as “superficial gestures… far outweighed by Amazon’s mistreatment of its Black workforce, including the vast majority of its black employees who work in its warehouse and fulfillment facilities.” Amazon employees have recently reproached

Amazon with its lack of diversity in manager roles. At one point there were more people named Jeff on Amazon’s leadership team than there were women, Black, and Latino executives combined.

Lack of available data

Amazon does not publish their employee demographic data in detail but they do make available the overview data that shows a relatively proportional racial representation among all U.S. managers. Amazon does not respond to requests for a breakdown on what portion of their corporate employees and managers are people of color. Many Amazon employees do claim that people of color are underrepresented in Amazon’s corporate employees but are overrepresented in the lower-wage logistics workers, who are the vast majority of Amazon’s over 1 million employees. In 2019, Newman claimed that Black and Latino female employees that had been unjustly passed for promotions had petitioned Amazon’s leadership team with a 15- page proposal asking for them to start having more equitable hiring and promotion practices. Employees again in 2021 emailed Amazon executives to show their outrage after Christian Smalls was referred to as “not smart or articulate” by his superior in Amazon. Many interpreted this comment as racist.

Amazons voice in racial movements 

When protests over racial injustice were spreading across the nation in the summer of 2020 Amazon pledged to “stand in solidarity with the Black community — our employees, customers, and partners — in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” Posts on social media and their internal website caused Amazon employees to say that their employer’s statement was at odds with their law-enforcement partnership that police people of color, the high injury rates where over one-quarter of their injured are people of color, and the sea of white faces on the leadership team.

Amazon pledged to begin listening and responding to Black employees’ concerns. For the first time Amazon added a Black executive to their top leadership team, Alicia Boler Davis. AWS enacted a ban on the use of a facial recognition software that had been found to misidentify Black individuals by police departments. Some Black Amazon employees even said Amazon was
beginning to make progress in changing its culture. Newman contends and says Amazon has not gone far enough to get rid of its “racially and sexually discriminatory attitudes.”

Newmans Experience

Newman graduated Harvard Business School and had worked as an economic policy advisor to New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. When she applied to work on AWS in 2017 she believed she was interviewing for a position with higher pay and more responsibility than the job she was offered. Shortly after joining Amazon she had begun to take on duties commensurate with a higher salary. “Within months of starting at [Amazon], she in fact was assigned and doing the work of a Senior Manager-level employee while still being paid at and having the title of the Manager level,” according to the complaint. “To make matters worse, and in defiance of the anti-discrimination laws, Ms. Newman was paid significantly less than her white coworkers, particularly in valuable Amazon stock.” Other Black employees have said to experience the same treatment at Amazon. While Newman was taking on Level 7 responsibilities she was being paid Level 6 salary and she was even engaging with foreign government officials on behalf of AWS.

For over 2 years Newman took on work that was above her pay-grade before she was finally promoted while white men with similar experience climbed the ladder much quicker. She believes that Amazon’s delay in recognizing her work has cost her millions of dollars in missing pay. Newman says that her interactions with supervisors and more senior Amazon executives showed signs of bias against her race and gender. Her first manager criticized her for being too direct, aggressive, and just scary. Newman was warned that she can intimidate people which is coded feedback according to the lawsuit and is often baselessly directed towards black women while white male peers would be rewarded for verbal sparring.

Newman says that managers “frequently complained about the personalities of other female employees, which is not their common practice regarding men under their supervision.” Another supervisor yanked on Newman’s long braids without permission, telling her, “You can leave this behind,” according to the suit. The same employee touched Newman’s upper thigh under the table during a work dinner, “close to her genitalia, and grabbed and groped her upper thigh.” While Newman was waiting for a ride home he propositioned sex and Newman told him that “she would do no such thing.” Newman filed a complaint about him and he was ultimately terminated.