Black Amazon Employees Sick and Tired of Insider Discrimination

By Samantha Rosenbaum / December 8th 2023

Recode reported on February 26, 2021, that Chanin Kelly-Rae, who began her role as the global manager of diversity in Amazon’s cloud computing division in 2019, left the company in less than a year. Despite her two decades of experience in leading diversity and inclusion efforts, Kelly-Rae’s tenure at Amazon left her convinced of systemic issues disadvantaging Black employees and those from other underrepresented backgrounds.

According to Kelly-Rae, Amazon displayed a reluctance to heed internal experts on addressing and rectifying these problems. She criticized Amazon’s approach, stating it did not align with best practices for advancing diversity and inclusion, suggesting the company was regressing rather than progressing.

Kelly-Rae, one of several corporate Amazon employees interviewed by Recode, expressed a prevailing sentiment among them that Amazon failed to cultivate a welcoming and respectful corporate environment. Allegations of direct and hidden biases affecting careers and personal lives, particularly among Black employees, were common. Amazon’s promotion and review systems were also accused of creating an uneven playing field, with Black employees receiving lower rankings and promotions at a reduced rate.

Recode’s examination of data from the Amazon Web Services division revealed significant disparities in performance review ratings between Black and white employees. Amazon’s internal diversity and inclusion managers claimed that the company struggled to attract Black talent due to resistance to deviate from normal practices. Additionally, Black employees faced challenges in promotions and top-tier ratings, leading to higher turnover rates.

Instances of biased interactions within Amazon’s corporate offices were reported, including inappropriate comments about ancestors owning slaves and micro-aggressions. Complaints to Human Resources often resulted in minimal repercussions for offenders, further exacerbating the hostile work environment.

Employees working for the Amazon Web Services expressed concerns that systemic racism would persist. Recode’s interviews highlighted the mental health toll on affected employees, with some seeking counseling and others leaving or transferring departments to escape toxic work environments.

Criticism extended to Amazon’s senior leadership team for allegedly not implementing effective strategies to address bias. The issues were not limited to the corporate realm, as evidenced by the controversial firing of a Black warehouse manager, Christian Smalls, who organized a walkout during the early pandemic.

Kelly-Rae’s experience as Amazon’s diversity and inclusion leader for Amazon Web Services underscored the challenges. A heated exchange during an all-staff meeting in 2020 revealed concerns about resource scarcity in diversity and inclusion work. Questions about access to workforce demographic data were met with a dismissive response from leadership, leaving employees dismayed.

While Amazon’s diversity statistics may appear favorable, with 26.5% Black employees in 2019, the disproportionate concentration in lower-paying positions was highlighted. The interviewees, all Black Amazon employees, claimed they or their colleagues were often hired at lower levels than their qualifications warranted, with promotions proving elusive in the notoriously challenging Amazon promotion landscape.

Despite anticipating a cutthroat culture at Amazon, some employees found the discrimination they faced surpassed their expectations. While waiting for positive changes, those who continued working at Amazon expressed hope for improved conditions.

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