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Amazon’s Black employees say the company’s HR department is failing them

In interviews with Recode, dozens of Amazon employees detailed allegations of racial bias and discrimination on the job — and many of them said the company’s HR department was part of the problem.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos speaks during the grand opening of the Amazon Spheres, a botanical garden inside the Amazon office complex in Seattle, on November 13, 2018.
Ted S. Warren/AP
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Amazon has never been known as an easy place to work. It’s not uncommon for job candidates to ask Amazon’s recruiters about an infamous New York Times story from 2015 that reported corporate employees routinely cry at their desks. Amazon corporate managers have goals for “unregretted attrition” — basically a percentage of their staff that should leave the company each year, either voluntarily or by being forced out.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has famously said the company’s goal is to be the “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” and for decades that singular focus seems to have come at the expense of nearly all else. But now a growing swath of its employees say this singular focus has helped perpetuate a race problem inside Amazon — and, crucially, that attempts to address it over the years have been stymied by the company’s HR department and its leader.

Pearl Thomas, a 64-year-old Black woman and human resources business partner, is one of these employees. She worked at Amazon for less than a year before she sued the company this May for alleged racial discrimination and retaliation. Her lawsuit is one of five different suits filed in recent months from current and former Amazon employees that detail shocking allegations of racial discrimination.

The plaintiffs, who are all women of color, claim they’ve experienced both explicit racism at work — like being called the n-word by a manager — and systemic racism that they say is reflected in the company’s alleged lower promotion rates and higher termination rates for underrepresented minorities. Thomas’s suit stands out because she works for the company’s HR department — which is supposed to not only hire and fire employees but also make sure they feel safe and satisfied at work.

Thomas claims in the filing that after she reported her white male manager for calling her the n-word when he thought she had already disconnected from a video call, Amazon’s HR division investigated but ultimately dismissed her claim when it couldn’t find proof. She also alleges that shortly after she complained, the manager retaliated against her by placing her on a performance review plan. On another occasion, Thomas alleges that she and a Black coworker were told by another manager that they should watch their tone so they wouldn’t be perceived as “angry Black wom[e]n.”

“Her position in the Company’s HR organization has given her a prime vantagepoint regarding both systemic discrimination and conscious animus towards Black employees at Amazon, along with the Company’s practices regarding diversity, employee complaints, and the use of performance management to retaliate against Black and other employees who raise concerns,” Thomas’s lawyers wrote in the legal complaint.

Amazon told Recode last month that it was “conducting thorough investigations” in light of the lawsuits, but that it had “found no evidence to support the allegations.”

But many of Thomas’s colleagues across the company tell Recode they’ve had experiences similar to those mentioned in the suits. Over the past few months, Recode has interviewed more than 30 current and former Amazon employees who detailed allegations of racial bias and discrimination on the job — and many of them said the company’s HR department was part of the problem.

More than a dozen of those sources, all of whom have worked in diversity, equity, and inclusion roles inside Amazon, told Recode that they believe Amazon’s HR leader, Beth Galetti, who is white, was for years one of the main barriers to Amazon becoming an equitable workplace for employees of all races.

“Beth is actively a gatekeeper and a blocker in this work,” a former Amazon diversity employee told Recode.

Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson said it was unfair and biased to label Galetti as a barrier to diversity and inclusion success at the company. Anderson said that since last June, Galetti and her team have been leading discussions every two weeks with the company’s senior leadership team on new goals related to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work, as well as how to remove impediments to progress toward the goals.

Still, diversity experts at Amazon told Recode that as long as Galetti oversees DEI work, they believe they won’t have the freedom, data, and tools they need to identify and solve issues related to racial inequity. Recode granted the sources for this story anonymity either because they feared retribution from Amazon or because company policy prohibits them, as current employees, from speaking to the press without permission.

But sources also told Recode that they believe the root of the problem goes deeper than Galetti — that she represents the company’s ethos but isn’t its inventor. They said Amazon’s corporate culture has long encouraged cutthroat competition between coworkers and that it often prioritizes defending the tech giant’s reputation above almost all else — including diversity, racial equity, and inclusion work.

Case in point: After Recode published a report in February that revealed racial disparities in Amazon performance review grades and allegations of other systemic racial issues, the company promised to investigate potential inequities and announced more ambitious diversity-focused hiring and representation goals. But Recode has learned that at the same time, there has been upheaval in Amazon’s core diversity, equity, and inclusion department and that Amazon temporarily placed an employment lawyer in charge of the team’s day-to-day work — one who had no DEI experience prior to joining the diversity team a few months earlier.

All of this has left many of the people whose work is meant to make Amazon a more equitable place feeling like they can’t do their jobs. “There’s just a sense of distress across the board for [diversity] professionals at Amazon,” a current employee told Recode.

An Amazon spokesperson said in a statement:

We work hard to make Amazon a company where employees and people of all backgrounds feel included, respected, and want to grow their careers. This starts with recruiting to ensure our teams are diverse, and is continued by the work of the hundreds of diversity, equity, and inclusion experts that make up DEI teams across Amazon. While these teams are singularly focused on building an inclusive work environment and ensuring equitable access for all, we know that true diversity, equity, and inclusion starts with every senior leader, hiring manager, and Amazon employee being part of the solution. This is why we require inclusion training for all employees and have shared our 2021 goals and progress globally, in addition to implementing mechanisms that help us gather real-time employee feedback so we can adjust as we go.

A problem that starts at the top

Galetti, the HR leader, is just one person. Sources told Recode that of course she is not the only one at fault for the race problem they believe exists at Amazon. But sources told Recode that they believe Galetti had for years failed at her job, particularly as a member of CEO Jeff Bezos’s core leadership team, to sufficiently promote and support diversity and inclusion work inside Amazon and to ensure it was an equitable workplace.

“Blame rests with Beth,” an HR employee who has worked at Amazon for more than five years, told Recode. “She’s been the architect of the people-focused projects during these years of hyper growth. If it’s not her responsibility, whose is it?”

There have been some recent shifts. Four years into her HR leadership role, Galetti began leading discussions with other members of Jeff Bezos’s leadership team every two weeks to discuss and review aggressive new diversity goals and progress for the company. This new focus for Galetti and Amazon leaders came last summer, as Amazon, like many large corporations, began making new commitments focused on Black Americans in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. But until that catalyst, sources told Recode that they believe Galetti didn’t prioritize DEI work.

A major issue with Galetti’s leadership, according to former diversity staffers, is that she seemed to downplay or resist the idea that some employees in underrepresented groups are at a natural disadvantage compared to their peers.

Amazon’s HR leader, Beth Galetti, speaks during a Wall Street Journal event on December 10, 2019.
Alamy/Reuters/Al Drago

One source recounted a meeting between Galetti and members of Amazon’s diversity staff several years ago, during which Galetti was confronted with data showing that Black employees at Amazon hit a promotion ceiling at certain levels in the company’s corporate hierarchy. According to a person familiar with the exchange, Galetti replied: “These people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did.” Galetti’s head of diversity work at the time, a Black executive with experience at a Fortune 100 company, attempted to explain that the Black employees didn’t have metaphorical “boots” — which the source took as an allusion to the systemic racism they face in society.

Galetti’s response: “If they work here, they have boots.”

Through a spokesperson, Galetti denied making these remarks.

“The story of Beth is the story of [many] of the executives at Amazon,” a former diversity employee told Recode. “For the most part, they haven’t had to examine their privilege, so it’s counter to their worldview to think about how people may be coming in at very real disadvantages.”

Another problem, sources say, is Galetti’s work experience. Amazon originally recruited Galetti, a logistics and technology executive, from FedEx in 2013 to take on an operations role at Amazon. But then Dave Clark, Amazon’s operations chief at the time, thought she would be a fit for a human resources leadership role despite her lack of HR experience, according to a new book, Amazon Unbound, by the journalist Brad Stone, which documents the transformation of Amazon and its founder over the past decade.

In 2016, Galetti ascended to the top HR role at Amazon as senior vice president of human resources and became the only woman on Jeff Bezos’s senior leadership team. Sources say Galetti tends to focus on developing software products, such as Amazon’s daily employee survey tool called Connections. Earlier this year, Amazon’s human resources division was renamed as People Experience and Technology (PXT).

A longtime Amazon HR manager told Recode that software tools have “improved dramatically” under Galetti’s leadership. Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, noted that the company has 1.3 million employees globally and that developing internal HR software products is crucial, including for effectively doing DEI work.

“Beth is a brilliant operations professional and engineer,” the longtime HR manager added, “but it’s not surprising that these issues would be coming up under her because these aren’t issues she prioritizes or has experience in.”

The Amazon spokesperson said it’s not uncommon for the company to put leaders in charge of an area that they don’t have prior experience in. Other tech giants like Google and Facebook have similarly employed HR leaders who don’t come from a human resources background.

The problem in this case, according to people who’ve worked in diversity roles at Amazon, is that Galetti and her deputies have gone on to hire several key DEI employees who similarly don’t have meaningful experience doing diversity work. Sources pointed out that the head of diversity efforts within Amazon Web Services was for years a white woman who had significant HR experience but no specific expertise in the field of diversity and inclusion. Multiple sources told Recode that they believe this leader didn’t understand the basics of diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

“One thing not called out is the number of white women who have senior leadership roles currently, and ... have held no D&I roles before,” a former Amazon diversity employee said. “Sometimes, I know, [it’s] someone ... passionate about the work. [But] that’s never enough for Black women to just be passionate about something. We are in rooms with people who are in some ways gatekeeping the work that gets done. They don’t have real experience but are seated at the table as a peer.”

And when Amazon finally hired an experienced diversity director in 2017 who’d overseen diversity work for a Fortune 100 company, she lasted less than two years in the role. (She currently runs DEI work in an entirely different division at the company — a move that the company spokesperson said was voluntary.) Multiple people described Galetti’s relationship with this director, who is a Black woman, as toxic and, at times, unprofessional. Sources who witnessed interactions between the two said that Galetti often talked over her in meetings and avoided eye contact with her. In one instance, sources say, Galetti called for a redo of internal training videos starring the diversity chief, with the HR leader saying, “I don’t want us to sound too trite.”

Some diversity employees also say it’s telling that both this diversity head and her successor had “director” titles in Amazon’s management hierarchy, and not a higher-level “vice president” label. Amazon has around 400 vice presidents at the company, but none focused on diversity work.

“She has singular authority on her own to change that,” a former Amazon diversity employee said of Galetti. Amazon leaders have told staff, and a spokesperson told Recode, that they are now searching for a VP-level executive to run diversity work at the company.

Despite all this, it was a big moment in 2017 when a group of Amazon executives and diversity staff, including Galetti, met to craft and review a memo on diversity that would be the first of its kind ever presented to Bezos. Some staffers pushed for the memo to propose that Amazon could begin inviting warehouse employees, who are disproportionately Black and Latinx compared to corporate staff, to apply for a technical training program called the Amazon Technology Academy. The program was at the time only open to corporate employees. The idea was to offer warehouse workers a way to acquire skills they might need to make a jump to white-collar work, while helping improve racial diversity among the company’s corporate staff.

Galetti made her opinion of the proposal clear.

“This isn’t McDonald’s,” the HR leader told the group, according to people familiar with the meeting discussion. “You don’t go from making fries to corporate.”

With Galetti’s veto, the suggestion was nixed.

Through a spokesperson, Galetti denied making these remarks. The spokesperson added that Galetti is now the co-executive sponsor of the Amazon Technical Academy and a supporter of other company programs to “upskill” front-line employees, including one that has promised to spend $700 million to train 100,000 Amazon employees for new in-demand jobs by 2025. The Amazon Technical Academy began in 2017 but did not start accepting warehouse employees until its second cohort in 2019. The program recently graduated 77 employees, around 40 percent of whom previously held warehouse roles, according to the spokesperson.

Upheaval on the DEI team even as Amazon commits to diversity work

More recently, Galetti’s actions — more than her words — have angered employees focused on diversity work. In late 2020, around a dozen new people transferred internally to the global diversity team. But according to sources throughout Amazon, none of these employees had any previous experience in diversity work. They were employment lawyers and other staff focused on investigations and compliance.

And when Amazon’s former head of the global diversity team, Elizabeth Nieto, left the company in early 2021, Galetti replaced her, at least on an interim basis, with a longtime vice president in charge of a large technical team focused on recruiting. But the actual day-to-day management of the diversity team shifted to one of the employment lawyers who had just a few months earlier joined the diversity organization — she had no other prior DEI experience. (Amazon has two structures for diversity work at the company. The majority of diversity employees work within different business divisions like Amazon Web Services or Amazon Studios, while a smaller group of employees work on a central global diversity team under human resources and Galetti that’s intended to work on company-wide initiatives versus division-specific ones.)

Sources told Recode that once the employment attorney took over the diversity team, she moved members of its research, analytics, and recruiting units to other divisions of the company. An internal memo announcing the restructuring said the departing employees would still be “closely tied” to the central diversity team, but the shake-up was nonetheless a shock to DEI employees across Amazon.

Then, just two days after Recode notified Amazon about the content of this story, the company announced yet another reshuffling: The employment lawyer who had been the day-to-day leader of the diversity team on an interim basis was now moving with her staff off the diversity team. The new employment lawyer is becoming Galetti’s pseudo-chief of staff, according to sources — a role known inside Amazon as a technical adviser or “shadow.” With this change, the group’s actual DEI experts would remain on the diversity team but begin reporting to a new temporary boss until a permanent vice president is hired to head up DEI work across Amazon.

Even before this latest overhaul, around two dozen members of Amazon’s central diversity team had either left the team or been pushed out over the past two years, according to sources. Today, the team has fewer than 10 employees, sources say.

“You can’t say you’re committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion and then start dismantling the DEI team,” a person who has worked in a diversity role at Amazon told Recode.

This shake-up has stunned employees across the company — especially because of the timing. As they were rolling out these changes, Galetti and other Amazon leaders have been expressing how much the company cares about recruiting a more diverse set of employees and executives, while also improving the experience at Amazon for folks from underrepresented backgrounds once they get in the door.

“We are committed to fostering a culture in which inclusion is the norm for all Amazonians,” Galetti wrote in a company blog post on April 14. “I am grateful to the many employees who continue to share their experiences with me and other senior leaders. Tough feedback is always uncomfortable to hear, but their stories remind us that we have more work to do to achieve our goals. This is some of the most important work we have ever done, and we are committed to building a more inclusive and diverse Amazon for the long term.”

Galetti then listed 11 company-wide goals related to DEI work, including inspecting “any statistically significant demographic differences” in performance ratings given by managers and employee attrition, as well as the goal of retaining “employees at statistically similar rates across all demographics.” Several other goals were focused specifically on Black employees and Black executives, including doubling the number of Black executives at the director and vice president levels for the second year in a row.

But some diversity employees pointed out how recently announced goals, like inspecting performance ratings and attrition rates for racial disparities, only came after Recode published its February investigation into racial issues at the company.

“No matter how many people suffer, they always ignore it unless it appears to hurt their brand or threaten leadership,” a current diversity employee told Recode.

It is true that Amazon has been making progress in increasing representation of employees of races that are typically underrepresented in the tech industry. Amazon US corporate employees in entry-level and middle-management positions who identify as Black and Latinx grew from 5.4 percent and 6.6 percent respectively in 2019 to 7.2 percent and 7.5 percent in 2020, according to recent data the company published. For context, about 13.4 percent of US residents identified as Black or African American in 2019, while 18.5 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to the US Census Bureau.

An Amazon spokesperson pointed to company data that shows 26.5% of Amazon’s entire US workforce identifies as Black or African American and 22.8% of that workforce identifies as Latinx; those percentages include warehouse and customer service workers in addition to corporate staff. Amazon’s field and customer support workforce, which comprises the three lowest levels at the company and includes its warehouse workers, is disproportionately Black and Latinx compared to the US population — in 2020, 26.4 percent of these workers identified as Latinx and 31 percent identified as Black or African American.

And some diversity employees called out drop-offs in racial representation as you go higher in Amazon’s corporate ranks, saying that this shows Amazon’s internal systems are still stacked against nonwhite and non-Asian employees.

In Amazon’s “senior leader” ranks — which are “director” level and above in the company’s hierarchy — Black and Latinx executives accounted for just 1.9 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively, in 2019. Those percentages jumped to 3.8 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively, in 2020.

Anderson, the Amazon spokesperson, said the company acknowledges it has more work to do but that it is making significant progress every year. And, of course, Amazon is far from alone in the technology industry in having more work to do in creating a corporate workforce that more closely resembles the racial makeup of the greater US population. Even so, some employees still don’t trust that the company will focus on the right things when it comes to DEI work.

“It feels like I’m doing window-dressing and lying for Amazon or something,” one current diversity employee said. “And I think they actually think they are doing good diversity work. But they are overly focused on recruiting. They don’t have [enough] focus internally on the employee experience, and they are not listening to their own employees.”

Amazon’s spokesperson said the company disagrees, citing new 2021 company goals like having similar retention rates for employees of all races, as well as internal programs focused on the employee experience, such as one-year mentoring initiatives focused on women from underrepresented backgrounds.

Diversity employees who spoke to Recode also said Galetti and other leaders don’t give them access to the data they say they need to identify problem areas and come up with sustainable ways to fix them. Recode previously reported that Amazon diversity employees who work outside of the HR department had confronted Galetti at an internal summit in early 2020 about the difficulty of not having access to detailed data about workforce demographics across different management levels.

Then, after Recode first presented Amazon with leaked internal data in February that seemed to show racial disparities in employee performance ratings, Amazon began further restricting access to internal demographic data, according to numerous sources. Now, many diversity employees must ask certain colleagues who have access to pull information for them, or get sign-off for access from superiors.

Anderson, the spokesperson, said the company agrees that data plays a crucial role in the work but that the specificity of access a given DEI professional has relates to their specific role. She maintained that all DEI professionals at Amazon have access to the data they need to do their job.

But several staffers focused on diversity work at the company disagree.

“For those of us with experience, we know that data tells the story and is key to focusing on the right things,” another diversity employee said. “We hope we are hitting home runs, but in most cases we are working off of anecdotes.”

When customer obsession conflicts with employee satisfaction

For all their criticisms of Galetti, current and former employees emphasized that they believe her leadership choices and priorities are a reflection of a corporate culture that’s obsessed with customer satisfaction, but that has historically been less interested in the kind of empathy for employees that’s necessary for sustained success in DEI work.

“I’d say 40 percent of the impression that [Galetti] doesn’t care about DEI comes from actions she chose,” a former Amazon diversity employee told Recode. “Sixty percent is [that] she’s a cog in the machine.”

Several of these people also assigned blame to members of Jeff Bezos’s predominantly white male leadership team, who they believe have for years been complicit in ignoring signs of racial inequity inside the company. This leadership team consists of around 25 executives — but only four are women, and three of the women are white. None of the men are Black or Latino.

“The S team [senior leadership] is so out of touch, and none of this affects them — so they can get away with not ever addressing [it],” a former Amazon diversity professional told Recode.

Anderson, Amazon’s spokesperson, defended the company’s top leaders, pointing out new biweekly meetings focused on Amazon’s DEI efforts that the majority of them have been attending since June 2020. She said there are no other initiatives that top company leaders meet so regularly to discuss.

Some employees also stressed that, increasingly, other companies are moving diversity work out of HR and giving chief diversity officers a direct line to a company’s chief executive. A recent survey of 168 chief diversity officers found that nearly 40 percent report to a company’s CEO, while just 17 percent report to the head of HR.

“DEI is emancipatory work and at times needs to challenge the company itself,” a current Amazon employee told Recode. “HR acts like the company’s bodyguard and will jump in front of a bullet to save the company even if the company itself was the one holding the gun.”

Others want to see more accountability when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion work.

“I don’t think broadly that senior leadership wants to do the wrong thing,” an Amazon diversity employee told Recode. “But with things that are a business imperative, there are consequences. For [diversity and inclusion], that’s not the case. If you don’t meet the goal, no one is not being promoted because of that. The goals are more aspirational.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with Amazon India Chief Amit Agarwal at an event in New Delhi on January 16, 2020.
Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images

Sources also told Recode they believe HR is a problem for diversity work because sometimes members of the human resources department can perpetuate biases and commit microaggressions.

One source told Recode about a recent exchange surrounding a lawsuit that Charlotte Newman, a Black leader in Amazon’s Web Services division, filed against the company and two of its executives in March, alleging gender and racial discrimination, as well sexual harassment and assault. After Newman appeared on a national morning news show to discuss her experiences and lawsuit, a white HR manager commented about Newman’s appearance in an internal meeting. “She’s well-spoken; she presents so well,” the white HR leader said, according to someone familiar with the incident. The implication, it seemed to this source, was that both observations were for some reason a surprise to the HR manager.

A source told Recode that in another incident, a different white Amazon HR leader “lost her shit” when a diversity employee recommended that Asian employees could benefit from education on the idea of “allyship.” The leader raised her voice and criticized the suggestion as absurd. The recommendation came after Black and Latinx employees gave feedback to diversity staff that they experience bias from some of their South Asian and East Asian colleagues. Asian employees are, by far, the largest nonwhite racial group in Amazon’s US corporate workforce, comprising more than one-third of staff.

“Any other place, this could be a priority and something to figure out how we tackle,” the source told Recode. “We would inspect for homogeneity of teams ... and say, ‘Hey, your team is predominantly X, and you have X headcount, and here is what we strongly recommend.’ Not at Amazon.”

Andy Jassy, seen here in 2017, will take over as CEO for Jeff Bezos on July 5.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Amazon spokesperson said the company’s records do not indicate these incidents were reported internally, but said in a statement:

Amazon works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm, and these anecdotes do not reflect our values. 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.

Across the board, Amazon employees who work in diversity roles told Recode that the company is at an inflection point when it comes to this critical work. Several of the current Amazon employees who spoke to Recode said they decided to share their stories as a last resort.

“I want to stay,” one of them said, noting how big of an impact Amazon can have because it’s the second-largest private employer in the US and a model for many other companies, as well as a company whose products and services impact so many people.

But these same employees also reiterated a common belief: that big, uncomfortable change at Amazon often only comes as a result of press coverage or other external pressure.

“I have a group text with female colleagues and friends built over the years and we share all these articles,” one longtime HR employee said, referencing investigative stories about Amazon’s internal culture and labor practices. “Our general perspective is, ‘Thank God. We welcome the inspection in our organization.’”

Some said they were holding out hope that new Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, who takes over for Jeff Bezos on July 5, might make changes if he understands how defeated diversity employees at the company currently feel, and how hard it is for them to do their jobs effectively.

Bezos himself seemed to be grappling with Amazon’s legacy as an employer when he published in April his final letter to shareholders as the company’s chief executive. In the note, which came in the wake of a historic union drive at an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, Bezos committed to Amazon becoming “Earth’s Best Employer” in addition to his original vision of Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company.

Still, other diversity employees were less than optimistic. Several of Recode’s sources said they were looking for a way out of the company.

“People come into this work because they want to make a difference,” a current Amazon employee said. “You get pulled by your heartstrings, [but] then get sucked into a hostile situation.”

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