Enterprise

AWS says no evidence of discrimination. Employees say it hides in plain sight.

Such is the reality of today’s corporate environment.

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There was hope this report would be the catalyst to institute more systemic change within both ProServe and the whole of AWS.

Image: Henrique Casinhas/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

It’s a tale as old as, well, the last few years. And this month, it’s AWS that got to live it.

The company recently outlined to employees the findings of an external probe conducted by Oppenheimer Investigations Group into a troubled division of the sprawling cloud giant. Known shorthand as ProServe, it’s the unit that helps customers make the most of AWS products.

It's a vital touch point to get those users to spend more money with the company, which means it’s an important and very visible division within AWS. ProServe is also subject to a chorus of workplace complaints. AWS, as well as Amazon as a whole, have faced numerous lawsuits over the past few years, including several active cases, that all alleged an atmosphere of bullying, discrimination and harassment, indicating the issues extend beyond ProServe.

The Oppenheimer investigation, along with a simultaneous but separate probe by AWS, found no evidence to substantiate such claims.

Such is the reality of today’s corporate environment. No matter how appalling the allegations, no matter how many voices chime in to echo them, no matter the magnitude of the actions that workers take to draw attention to the issues, when businesses investigate themselves — or hire someone else to — everything is perfect. It’s like going to fix your broken iPhone only for it to work the second it falls into the technician’s hands.

  • For example, Activision found no evidence of harassment in the organization despite media reports suggesting such behavior was widely known.
  • It's not just the technology industry. In the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Lauer, NBC faced questions over how long top executives knew about his behavior. An internal probe conducted by the company’s top lawyer found, ahem, no evidence to substantiate such claims that company leadership was indeed aware.
  • And in Amazon’s case, the company continues to reach private settlements with employees who made allegations similar to the ones that AWS and Oppenheimer say they were unable to substantiate.

But details of the Oppenheimer probe are telling. Investigators talked to 92 current and former ProServe employees, according to an email sent to employees. Overall, the division has thousands of workers.

  • While no one would expect Oppenheimer or AWS to talk to everyone, fewer than 100 employees is a very small sampling — especially considering that the investigation was launched a year ago.
  • The more than 550 employees who signed the letter that spurred the investigation represent more than five times the number on Oppenheimer’s call sheet.
  • Amazon hasn't made public the details of its investigation beyond confirming what it says the team probing ProServe found: that the slew of accusations don't hold up under scrutiny.

It’s evident that Amazon is a tough place to work regardless of the division, but AWS stands out for the stream of accusations leveled against it. And those are just the ones the public knows about; they don’t include many others raised privately, according to current and former employees.

As is usually the case with Amazon, there’s more to the story. Amazon said “all AWS ProServe employees were invited and encouraged to participate in the Oppenheimer investigation.”

  • But according to reports and internal sources, Amazon has no problem deploying aggressive corporate intimidation tactics on those unwilling to play by its rules. It locks employees with whom it’s reached settlements into iron-clad non-disclosure agreements that are strictly enforced.
  • There’s a lack of trust in the formal HR system — one that, for some cases, includes probes by outside firms similar to Oppenheimer — that employees have said deters individuals from filing claims.

Still, this is Amazon’s victory. Facing legal and reputational challenges, the company can now point to a report from a law firm led by Amy Oppenheimer, an experienced employment attorney, declaring that nothing is amiss.

For Amazon, there’s an important reason why this is such a big deal: Andy Jassy. The man who led the cloud division for 18 years is now the new Jeff Bezos. In other words, he’s a powerful man.

  • Uncovering evidence of discriminatory or harassing behavior at his former unit could bring up uncomfortable questions, like how much and what did Jassy know? And what did he do to try to address it?

Now, as head of the entire company, Jassy has “championed” diversity. But that effort has already hit a major roadblock with the departure of two of its top Black leaders. And when it came time for Jassy to appoint top lieutenants, the positions (surprise!) went to white men.

  • There are some out there whose hatred of Amazon is so feverish that they would settle for nothing less than a complete gutting of the company.
  • And while the number of “true believers” may be dwindling as Amazon ages and its stock price drops along with everyone else’s, there are many employees who continue to trust in the company.
  • For good reason: It remains one of the world’s most successful and important businesses.

There was hope this report would be the catalyst to institute more systemic change within both ProServe and the whole of AWS. Instead it may have just validated the despicable behavior that workers allege has festered openly within the company for years.

But the Oppenheimer report will in no way close the door on this issue for Amazon. If anything, it could spur more people to speak out. Even the most powerful companies can only keep a lid on internal scandals of a certain magnitude for so long. And Amazon is already a hot pot waiting to explode.

Correction: This story was corrected June 28, 2022, to clarify that the lawsuits facing AWS extend beyond just ProServe.

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