Posted on March 10, 2021

Black Employees Say Amazon Has a Race Problem

Jason Del Rey, Recode, February 26, 2021

When Chanin Kelly-Rae started working at Amazon in 2019 as a global manager of diversity in the company’s cloud computing division, she had big ambitions for her new job. She had nearly two decades of experience leading diversity and inclusion efforts inside important institutions, like Washington state’s governor’s office, but she’d never worked at an influential global business leader like Amazon.

But less than a year later, Kelly-Rae quit. Her tenure inside the company convinced her that Amazon’s corporate workplace has deep, systemic issues that disadvantage Black employees and workers from other underrepresented backgrounds. And she was dismayed by her perception that Amazon leadership was unwilling to listen to internal experts about how to identify and fix these problems.

“Amazon was not doing things in a way that represents best practices that would advance diversity and inclusion in any way that is meaningful and thoughtful,” she told Recode. “Let me add: Amazon appeared to be taking steps backward instead of forward.”

Kelly-Rae, who is Black, is one of more than a dozen former and current Amazon corporate employees — 10 of whom are Black — who told Recode in interviews over the past few months that they felt the company has failed to create a corporate-wide environment where all Black employees feel welcomed and respected. Instead, they told Recode that, in their experience, Black employees at the company often face both direct and insidious bias that harms their careers and personal lives. All of the current and former employees, other than Kelly-Rae, spoke on condition of anonymity either because of the terms of their employment with Amazon or because they fear retribution from Amazon for speaking out about their experiences.

Current and former Amazon diversity and inclusion professionals — employees whose work focuses on helping Amazon create and maintain an equitable workplace and products — told Recode that internal data shows that Amazon’s review and promotion systems have created an unlevel playing field. Black employees receive “least effective” marks more often than all other colleagues and are promoted at a lower rate than non-Black peers. Recode reviewed some of this data for the Amazon Web Services division of the company, and it shows large disparities in performance review ratings between Black and white employees.

“We struggle to bring [Black] folks in because there’s not a whole lot of desire, in my opinion, to go outside of our normal practices,” a current Amazon diversity manager told Recode. “And then when they do get here, it’s harder to get promoted, harder to get top-tier rated, and easier to get lowest-tier. All those things combined make it so folks don’t wanna stay. And folks will leave Amazon and go take on more senior roles elsewhere.”

Amazon spokesperson Jaci Anderson provided Recode with a statement that said:

“We disagree with this characterization of Amazon’s culture and believe that it misrepresents the facts and is based on the views of a small number of individuals.”


Some of those who spoke to Recode recounted what they saw as biased interactions inside Amazon’s corporate offices, including a white male manager who told a Black female employee, unprompted, that his ancestors “owned slaves but I’m pretty sure they were good to their slaves.” Others described microaggressions like being called out by managers and peers for not smiling or being friendly enough.

They told Recode that even when they reported these kinds of interactions to human resources, the offending colleagues often faced few or no repercussions, especially in cases where there were no other witnesses. Many of these employees work or worked for Amazon Web Services, the division of Amazon that is run by longtime Amazon executive Andy Jassy, whom Jeff Bezos recently announced will succeed him as Amazon CEO later this year. Still, several said they believe that Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company.

The employees Recode interviewed said the racial bias they encountered at Amazon affected them in a multitude of meaningful ways: Four of the Black women who spoke to Recode said they sought mental health counseling while at Amazon, either solely or in large part because of their experience working at the company. Some workers said treatment from colleagues and managers compelled them to leave the company, even though they’d once viewed it as the opportunity of their dreams. And some stuck it out at the company by transferring roles, and even taking demotions, to escape toxic bosses. One current employee said she’s still at Amazon because she believes she can make a difference.


Some of those interviewed said that not all teams and managers perpetuate these racial biases at the company. And several told Recode they were heartened when company leaders, including Bezos, spoke out publicly last year to condemn police killings of Black Americans and to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

But they all said their view is that the company is plagued by systemic issues that disproportionately harm Black employees — and several faulted the company’s senior leadership team, known as the S-team, for not focusing enough on identifying and implementing the right strategies to fix the biases. Some employees also told Recode that they think the human resources division has not done enough to root out employees that they feel have discriminated against them or their Black colleagues.

And these issues extend far beyond Amazon’s corporate workforce, as seen last spring after Amazon fired a Black warehouse manager named Christian Smalls, who had organized a small employee walkout at a facility to protest what the group said were inadequate health protections for workers during the early weeks of the pandemic. Amazon’s top lawyer, David Zapolsky, later referred to Smalls as “not smart, or articulate” in notes from a meeting with Bezos and other company leaders. After these notes leaked to the press, Amazon white-collar employees fumed over the treatment of Smalls and Zapolsky’s choice of words, which were viewed as offensive at best and racist at worst.

These allegations matter because the company is the second-largest private sector employer in the US, and how Amazon hires, treats, and retains Black employees directly impacts the hundreds of thousands of people who work for the tech giant. {snip}


On the surface, Amazon’s diversity statistics look better than most tech giants: In 2019, 26.5 percent of employees identified as Black. But the main reason for that is the disproportionate number of Black workers employed in Amazon’s lower-paying front-line workforce — the hundreds of thousands of workers who pick, pack, and ship orders out of Amazon warehouses and, in some cases, deliver them to customer doors. {snip}

Around 11 percent of Amazon managers in 2020 were Black, including both corporate staff and front-line warehouse and physical store positions. (Black Americans make up 12 percent of the entire private sector workforce across the US, but just 7 percent of managerial roles, according to new research from the consulting firm McKinsey.) In 2020, Amazon said it doubled its number of Black directors and vice presidents and would aim to do the same in 2021; Amazon has around 400 vice presidents globally, but only around a dozen are Black.

But even directors and VPs aren’t necessarily at the top of Amazon’s hierarchy, where corporate employees are slotted into Levels 4 through 12, which is occupied solely by Bezos (and soon, presumably, future CEO Jassy). The top leadership team, the S-team, is composed of about two dozen executives, including everyone at Level 11, and a select few VPs, who sit at Level 10. This exclusive group meets regularly to discuss long-term ideas as well as pressing issues, and to also set or approve goals for important initiatives across the company, including the diversity goals pertaining to directors and VPs. But the S-team hasn’t set a similar goal of doubling Black representation among its own group for 2021.

Only this summer did Amazon finally name its first Black leader to the S-team: Alicia Boler Davis, a vice president who runs the company’s warehouse network worldwide. Amazon’s spokesperson said the company has not set a goal to double Black S-team representation in 2021 but declined to provide a reason.


Amazon performance reviews also seem to show signs of bias, according to internal data viewed by Recode. In AWS, for example, 12.7 percent of Black employees received the lowest rating — dubbed “least effective” — in annual performance reviews for 2018, compared to just 6.6 percent of white employees. The overall internal goal for this tier is 5 percent of employees. Similarly, only 14.5 percent of Black employees were given a “top-tier” rating in AWS that year, compared to 21.8 percent of white employees. Amazon’s internal target for this tier is 20 percent.

Performance ratings for 2019 also showed disparities, though slightly smaller. Around 10.2 percent of Black AWS employees received a “least effective” designation, compared to 6.2 percent of white employees. Meanwhile, 15.3 percent of Black AWS employees received the highest performance rating in 2019, compared to about 22 percent of white workers. Recode also viewed partial data for 2020 that suggests the gap is slowly shrinking but that disparities along racial lines remain.


An Amazon diversity manager also stressed that the company-wide disparities in ratings according to race might be even worse if not for a practice in which higher-ups at Amazon sometimes instruct lower-level managers to reevaluate grades if the racial or gender disparities in annual reviews for a given department are too great.

Of the performance review disparities, this diversity manager said: “That affects your eligibility for promotion, your income, and, in my opinion, just your well-being. The challenge is when we push back and say, ‘Hey, this shouldn’t be the case; the curves should be equitable on racial and gender lines,’ the feedback is always the exact same thing: ‘Perhaps they don’t meet the bar.’”

The idea of “meeting the bar” also comes up in conversations related to recruiting new employees out of historically Black colleges and universities, according to this manager. Amazon has in recent years put more effort into recruiting from HBCUs and last year created a two-semester entertainment industry program in Los Angeles in partnership with Howard University. But it is not uncommon for business managers at Amazon to question the idea of hiring for corporate roles from HBCUs that are not as well-known as Howard University or Spelman College. A common rhetorical question from managers, according to this internal source: “Do these universities meet the bar?”

The diversity manager said that this kind of blanket skepticism of an entire institution was unique to HBCUs below the very top tier, and not expressed for lesser-known universities that aren’t HBCUs.


One current Amazon employee, who is a Black woman, shared an experience with Recode that fits into this pattern. She told Recode she believes race played a role in her inability to get a promotion. Although she was on a promotion track, when she got a new white male boss, she said he repeatedly moved the goalposts on what she needed to earn the promotion. After pushing back again and again, she ultimately transferred to another team, where she still works. Looking back, she believes he was taken aback that she fought for herself and didn’t back down.

“I don’t think that these people ever thought I would push it as far as I did,” she said. “They didn’t think that — no offense — a little Black girl was going to do shit. Historically speaking, white men especially felt that with people of color, ‘I own your body, mind, labor, and output, and how dare you challenge me on this.’ The fact that I was vocal when there were problems and I made waves because things weren’t right — this person didn’t like that I challenged him.”

She has since found a new team and manager that she enjoys working with, and hopes that continuing to speak up internally will help spur some positive change at Amazon. At the same time, she believes that talking about her experiences publicly can also help pressure the company to make positive changes.

“I have been at Amazon long enough to actually see change happen because of articles being reported,” she added.


The employees who’ve stayed at Amazon are sticking it out for now and looking for any signs of positive change. One bright spot was the appointment of Boler Davis, the global warehouse chief, to the S-team in August. Others are also holding out hope that Jassy, Bezos’s successor, will play a direct role in pushing diversity and inclusion initiatives forward at the company.

While many of the sources who spoke to Recode told stories of discrimination inside of AWS, several said they believe Jassy cares about systemic racism impacting Black Americans inside and outside of the company, based on notes he’s sent to employees over the last year and his role as executive sponsor of company’s Black Employee Network affinity group, which has 34 internal chapters in various US cities and countries around the globe. But they were skeptical that one person, even the CEO, could turn the ship completely in the right direction.

In 2020, Amazon began requiring all employees to take diversity and inclusion training, and signed up as a launch employer for a third-party racial equity evaluation called the Management Leadership of Tomorrow’s Black Equity at Work Certification. Amazon also held a virtual “career enrichment” summit called Represent the Future that was attended by 5,000 Black, Latinx, and Native American professionals interested in learning about working at Amazon.

Some employees also hope Amazon’s goal of doubling the number of Black VPs and directors leads to more promotions and hiring of lower-level Black employees.

But Kelly-Rae, the former AWS diversity manager, said that although those goals sound great, they have significant limitations. One of the biggest issues, according to her, is that there are not S-team leaders whose compensation or job security is tied to building a more diverse and inclusive company. (Starbucks, for example, announced in October that the compensation of top company executives would be affected by diversity and inclusion successes or failures.)