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Amazon’s next CEO Andy Jassy defends company against racial bias reports in internal memo

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In the wake of a Recode investigation detailing allegations that Black workers face an unlevel playing field in Amazon’s corporate offices, the company’s future CEO defended Amazon while also acknowledging, “[W]e have a lot of work to do.”

In an internal email on Monday addressed to leaders of Amazon’s Black employee affinity group that Recode viewed, Andy Jassy, who will replace Jeff Bezos as Amazon’s CEO later this year, said he felt recent articles about racial equity at Amazon were “skewed portraits of the company.”

“It’s easy to paint these anecdotes as the norm, even when they’re not,” Jassy wrote.

But Jassy then added that “there were enough anecdotes, and enough people in our Black community at Amazon who have shared that they weren’t shocked by these stories, that it reinforces to me that we have a lot of work to do.”

“No person at Amazon should have experiences like these,” Jassy wrote.

Jassy sent the email 10 days after Recode reported on allegations from more than a dozen current and former corporate employees who said that Black workers at the company often face both direct and insidious bias that harms them professionally and personally. Some of the allegations came from current and former Amazon diversity and inclusion professionals — employees whose work focuses on helping Amazon create and maintain an equitable workplace. They told Recode that Black employees are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers; Recode also viewed internal data from one division of Amazon that indicated Black employees receive the lowest grade in performance reviews more often than all other colleagues. Amazon disputed this data but declined to provide alternate information.

A few days after Recode’s report, Charlotte Newman, a Black senior manager in Amazon Web Services, filed a lawsuit against Amazon and current executives for alleged race and gender discrimination, and for allegedly violating the Equality Pay Act. The suit, which cited Recode’s investigation, also alleged that a former Amazon executive sexually harassed and assaulted the AWS manager.

After Recode’s reports, Amazon offered corporate employees the opportunity to gather together in large “listening” groups via videoconferences to discuss their reactions to the stories as well as their own experiences at the company and those of their peers, according to multiple sources. In at least one division of the company, organizers had to add additional listening sessions after hundreds of employees showed up virtually to the first one, eclipsing the limit allowed for the videoconference.

Jassy, who is also the executive sponsor for Amazon’s Black Employee Network (BEN), seemed to allude to the listening sessions in his memo on Monday. But several Black employees told Recode they were disappointed that Jassy attempted to portray the reported experiences of Black employees as exceptions and not “the norm.” One current Black diversity and inclusion employee at Amazon told Recode that, overall, the email message “was not what I hoped he would deliver.”

“Especially the focus on these being skewed portraits and ‘a problem of perception,’” the employee added. “Black women have been talking about how common the experiences detailed are, only for him to reduce them to ‘complaints from a few.’”

Asked for comment, Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson sent Recode a statement that read:

We work hard to make Amazon a company where our Black employees and people of all backgrounds feel included, respected, and want to grow their careers. We care deeply about the experience of our more than 1.3 million employees around the world and recognize that they face the same challenges society grapples with, including the structural and systemic racism that has shaped the experience of Black people for generations. We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form, including the micro-aggressions that Black people experience all too often in their everyday lives. All employees are required to take inclusion training, and employees are encouraged to raise concerns to any member of management or through an anonymous ethics hotline with no risk of retaliation. When an incident is reported, we investigate and take proportionate action, up to and including termination. Any situation where even one of our employees is feeling excluded or unsupported is unacceptable.

Here’s Jassy’s full memo:

Hello BEN. I know it’s been an unsettling last 10 days.

Like most people I’ve spoken to, I’m disappointed by the recent articles on Amazon regarding racial equality, and particularly how they’ve portrayed Black female employees being treated in various circumstances over the years. I’ve also felt conflicted about it, which is part of why I’ve waited to write.

On the one hand, I feel like these were skewed portraits of the Company. Amazon has so many employees today (~1M) that reporters can find a number of people with anecdotes of unacceptable mistreatment. It’s easy to paint these anecdotes as the norm, even when they’re not.

On the other hand, there were enough anecdotes, and enough people in our Black community at Amazon who have shared that they weren’t shocked by these stories, that it reinforces to me that we have a lot of work to do. No person at Amazon should have experiences like these.

There’s been systemic racism in the United States for 400 years. Prejudices, biases, and unjust accepted standards have been passed on through several generations, and they have put Black Americans at a meaningful disadvantage in many dimensions, ranging from education, treatment from law enforcement and courts, and economic opportunity. Yes, there’s been progress. But, not enough. Yes, I think the U.S. goes through fits and starts of getting serious about fixing this (and we’re currently in a phase where I think there’s genuine passion about making more effective change). But, there’s a lot of work to do to address what’s happened over a long period of time. And, like most companies, Amazon surely has work to do, too.

What I can tell you is that I’m committed to this work, now and in the future. So is the entire [senior leadership team] (who worked hard together to set aggressive racial equity goals in 2020 and will double down on those in 2021). I also think we can communicate better about what we’re doing so people have a better sense of what’s happening (there is a lot of activity underway). We won’t solve the problems overnight. It’s going to take time. That’s all the more reason why we can’t let this issue be a temporary focus in response to more recent events — we’ll have to work hard at it together over an extended period of time to achieve what we want. But, we’re committed to being relentless about it.

Andy

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