In 2018, Amazon is a model for business excellence in many ways.
But when it comes to a track record for diversity of race and gender in its highest ranks, Amazon has been a laggard — and some of its own employees have had enough.
Tensions surfaced last week on an employee email thread, viewed by Recode, following Amazon’s opposition to a shareholder proposal that would require its board to formally consider women and minority candidates when selecting new board members.
(Update: Less than a week after this article was published, Amazon agreed to formalize a practice of including both women and minorities in its pool of candidates for new openings on its board of directors.)
The proposal — from CtW Investment Group — asks Amazon to “implement a ‘Rooney Rule’ requiring that the initial list of candidates from which new management-supported director nominees are chosen should include (but need not be limited to) qualified women and minority candidates.”
The Rooney Rule requires National Football League teams to interview at least one minority candidate for head coaching and general manager openings. Currently, all 10 directors of Amazon’s board are white. Seven are men and three are women.
“Shareholders have long believed that embracing diversity will benefit companies by providing greater access to talent, harnessing existing talent more effectively, and improving decision making by reducing groupthink and similar psychological biases,” the CtW proposal read.
“There is now ample evidence in support of this belief,” it continued, pointing to a 2017 McKinsey study.
But in advance of the shareholder vote deadline of May 25, Amazon’s board recommended a vote against the proposal — setting off the internal debate.
“Our processes for nominating directors involve complex considerations that are designed to advance the long-term interests of shareholders,” the company said in its proxy statement.
“Given our commitment to equality and the nature of our business,” the company added, “the Board believes that adoption of the policy requested by the proposal would not be an effective and prudent use of the Company’s time and resources.”
In a series of emails, Amazon employees voiced their displeasure with the company’s response and rattled off questions to an unnamed Amazon communications representative who had appeared early in the email thread to try to provide more color on the company’s stance.
“What exactly is the complex process that we currently use to find and vet talent that we are so proud of?” one question read.
“Why is complex ok?” the employee followed up, pointing out the seeming contradiction between the “complex considerations” referenced by Amazon and the company’s leadership principle of “invent and simplify.”
“[H]ow is it successful, if we aren’t diverse at all, and notably last amongst top tech companies?” the employee continued. “Please provide your measures for success.”
The employee’s reference to Amazon ranking last in diversity appears to come from the shareholder proposal, which states that all 17 of the retail, internet, technology and media companies Amazon identifies as peers have at least one director who is a person of color; 10 of the 17 peers have at least three directors of color, the proposal says.
The Amazon employee ended her email with an impassioned plea:
We have a chance to be the FIRST to tackle this amongst top tech companies, but whenever diversity issues come up, we run from data and sprint towards overelaboration and buzzwords. No one in a position of real authority here at Amazon is willing to be misunderstood for long periods of time on diversity. Matter fact, we choose to misunderstand rather than be misunderstood.
I know there are many people internally working really hard on these issues (both FT D&I staff and all the unpaid diversity laborers in our affinity group leadership teams!) who I know are reading stuff like this and feeling like their efforts are being detracted. You are who I am saying this for:
We don’t need more effort, we need COURAGE.
Check the Box?
The Amazon communications rep’s response on the thread did not sit well with some other employees.
“With the Rooney Rule ... there is a risk of a ‘check the box’ approach, which is reinforced by the study referenced in the shareholder proposal,” the communications rep wrote on the thread. “The Board agrees strongly with increasing Board diversity, and is actively seeking racially diverse and female candidates who would be outstanding additions to our Board, in addition to the three women directors already on our Board.”
But when employees followed up with questions asking for a better explanation on the company’s interpretation of the Harvard Business Review study that the rep called out, they didn’t receive any answers.
“Does anyone else see the possible bias that could result with a board made up of predominately older white males (the youngest person on the Board is Bezos himself) unilaterally making this decision on race and gender diversity?” one employee asked.
“Also, when the Rooney Rule was being proposed in the NFL,” he continued, “it faced the same pushback as what we’re seeing here. Yet years later there is little doubt that not only has it worked, many would say that it hasn’t gone far enough.”
The emails viewed by Recode provide a rare glimpse into the current divide inside Amazon between leadership and rank-and-file employees disheartened by the slow pace of change in adding women and underrepresented minorities to senior roles of power. The thread was shared among employees who belong to a variety of affinity groups inside Amazon, including the Black Employee Network and Amazon Women in Engineering.
In response to inquiries from Recode, Amazon echoed its stated position on the shareholder proposal and its replies to the employee email thread.
“Amazon has always been, and always will be, committed to diversity and inclusion,” the company said in a statement provided to Recode. “These are enduring values for us, and we are focused on continuing to diversify our workplace through pipeline, recruiting and retention activities. Our Board of Directors is also strongly committed to increasing Board diversity, and is actively seeking racially diverse and female candidates, in addition to the three women directors already on our Board. This commitment is already stated in our annual filings and we expect our Board’s diversity representation to continue improving in the future.”
As of late last year, 17 of the top 18 executives at Amazon were men and not one was a person of color. The male dominance at the top of the company came under new scrutiny in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal involving Amazon Studios head Roy Price, who resigned amid the claims.
Going down another management layer, Amazon’s numbers still looked bad as of late last year: 74 percent of Amazon executives were white men, compared to 68 percent at Apple, 65 percent at Google and 51 percent at Facebook, according to a Recode report.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.