"Too direct." "Too aggressive." "Scary."
A manager at Amazon called Charlotte Newman all of those things, Newman alleged in a recently-filed lawsuit against her employer. Her suit also alleged sexual assault from a manager as well as a systemic pattern of discrimination rooted in both sexism and racism.
Perhaps surprisingly, Newman has continued to work at Amazon during the legal process — partly because of a non-compete agreement she signed as part of the terms of her employment. Newman's non-compete agreement prohibits her from taking similar roles for 18 months upon leaving Amazon. Non-compete agreements are rare in Silicon Valley because California does not allow them to be enforced, but tech workers elsewhere can face them, and Amazon is known for its strict non-competes. A current piece of legislation, the Workforce Mobility Act, aims to limit the use of them nationwide.
In a conversation with Protocol, Newman spoke about the mistreatment she experienced at Amazon, her hopes for the Workforce Mobility Act and what she hopes to see from Amazon moving forward.
Down-leveling, harassment and demoralization
Newman first began working at Amazon in January 2017, after serving as the economic policy advisor to Senator Cory Booker for three years. Newman applied for a public policy senior manager position but was hired at a level below, the lawsuit states. Newman said she found herself doing the work of a senior-level manager within a few months of joining Amazon, without seeing any increase in pay or title.
During that time, Newman's manager, Steven Block, used racially-coded language to communicate with her, she said. The suit alleges Block said she was "too direct" and "too aggressive."
It really stung when he called her "scary," Newman told Protocol. "I went home and cried that day."
That was "particularly demoralizing," she said. At that point, it became clear that "he was not going to see me as a full human being."
Newman tried to have a conversation with Block about why calling her "scary" was problematic, she said, but he was not receptive to the feedback. She said she also experienced other types of microaggressions at work, such as when a white coworker suggested she take a photo with a Jambalaya wine bottle.
"There were also these moments where I think there was just a culture that was created where people felt emboldened to, or like they had permission to say and do things towards me that were, I think, motivated by bias in some way," she said. "It sort of recalled caricatures of Black people."
Newman said she also faced harassment from Andres Maz, a senior manager and later director of public policy for Amazon Web Services. Maz allegedly sexually assaulted Newman during a work dinner, in which he groped her upper thigh, according to the complaint. After that dinner, Maz allegedly begged her to have sex with him. The lawsuit further details a plethora of inappropriate behavior by Maz between 2017 and 2019.
Newman filed a written complaint to Amazon in June 2020, as well as an administrative complaint with the Washington, D.C. Office of Human Rights in September 2020. In October, Amazon fired Maz and told Newman it would look into whether discrimination has affected her career advancement at the company. But Amazon has not yet done anything to address the professional and financial harm she's experienced, according to the suit.
Amazon's investigation also found that Block made racially-charged comments toward Newman, but simply required that he complete diversity training.
"We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment of any kind," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement to Protocol. "We immediately investigated Ms. Newman's sexual harassment claim and fired her harasser. The investigation also resulted in corrective action and additional training requirements for those in her reporting line. We also reviewed Ms. Newman's interview process, leveling and onboarding, and determined that she was properly placed in her role at the company. We are currently investigating the new allegations included in the lawsuit."
Newman was hesitant to come forward about her experiences, but felt inspired by the conversations and awareness around racial justice in light of the killing of George Floyd.
"I started thinking about why it was important for me to speak up," she said. Her hope is that sharing her story will help push Amazon and the tech industry as a whole toward more equitable treatment of employees of color and women.
The insidiousness of non-compete agreements
Newman wanted to leave Amazon after those interactions with Maz, but the non-compete agreement she signed with the company made it hard to do that.
While employed and for the 18 months following separation from Amazon, employees are not able to engage in any work that competes or aims to compete with any Amazon product or service. Amazon has its hands in variety of businesses, including ecommerce, cloud services, media, smart devices and so much more.
"It's a very broad blanket non-compete" that lasts 18 months, she said. Newman asked Amazon to be released from it last October after she came forward about the harassment and discrimination.
"And what I was told was that the company doesn't release employees from non-competes," she said.
It's true: Amazon takes non-compete agreements very seriously. In July 2019, Amazon sued former AWS executive Philip Moyer for joining Google's cloud team. Amazon declined to explain to Protocol why it requires employees to sign non-compete agreements.
Amazon's filed suit against Moyer happened around the same time Newman was thinking about leaving the company to go do similar work somewhere else. But Newman felt scared, given how Amazon treated Moyer.
"It was alarming to see that these weren't just words on a page," she said of the agreement. "Sometimes you're told that companies don't really enforce non-competes, but I have seen repeatedly over my time at the company that Amazon does in fact enforce non-competes."
Beyond Moyer, Newman said Amazon enforced the non-compete agreement against someone she knew personally.
"It caused me a great deal of pause," she said.
Newman's experiences at Amazon have led her to examine workplace policies. In doing so, she came across the Workforce Mobility Act, which was reintroduced in February. The bipartisan bill is designed to stop the use of non-compete agreements in many circumstances. Proponents of the bill argue that non-compete agreements such as Amazon's harm workers and stifle innovation. Those in favor of non-compete agreements generally argue that they're necessary in order for businesses to protect trade secrets.
"It's just time to have greater scrutiny and real regulatory and legislative action," Newman said. "We're just at a point where, without that, workers like myself are left to just kind of fend for themselves without some of the protection that you would expect."
Staying silent 'preserves the status quo'
Newman's peers cautioned her about the potential risks of coming forward. But Newman said she "was far worse off" by not saying anything.
"You have to speak up and use your voice," she said. Staying silent "just preserves the status quo."
A number of other Amazon employees from underrepresented backgrounds have shared with Newman their personal stories of being down-leveled and facing microaggressions at work. Those stories from colleagues have reaffirmed to Newman that coming forward was the right thing to do.
"I just want people to understand that while this is one person's account, it's also reflective of many, many other stories that people have where they might have children, or spouses, or many other reasons why they don't feel comfortable coming forward or why they are afraid to put their job at risk," she said. "I just want to be clear that my story is really one of many other stories just like this."
Newman also wants people to know that there is a "real toll" that these experiences take on employees, and especially on Black employees and other employees of color.
"It's an emotional and mental tax," she said, holding back tears.
A future at Amazon
In November 2020, Newman left her public policy position to join a different team within AWS. She wasn't convinced Amazon would protect her from retaliation, since she still had to communicate with Maz while going through the investigation process, so she decided another team was the best way forward for her. In her new role, Newman oversees AWS's startups strategy, focused on underrepresented founders.
"I'm very passionate about creating a level playing field for entrepreneurs so that they have access to the resources they need to execute and to build," she said. "And if I can do that work at Amazon and make a difference, great. I think time will tell as to whether it's a place I can continue to stay. And I think that for me, it's also predicated not just on my ability to do my job but how Amazon responds to this moment."
Newman wants to see Amazon put a more robust system in place to support survivors of harassment and abuse at the company. She also recommends Amazon stop down-leveling job candidates.
Internal Amazon data, for example, shows large disparities in performance review ratings between Black and white employees, Recode reported in February.
This year, Amazon says it will "inspect any statistically significant demographic differences" in performance ratings to try to determine the root causes.
"I want to see the company actually make real changes and not things around the margins so that the day-to-day lives of Black employees and other employees of color actually improve," she said. "It's not enough to just increase numbers. There needs to be a real focus on changing the systemic patterns. Without actually attacking those real core issues, there's a real question around whether it will make sense for me personally going forward."
May 3, 2021 6:50pm PT: This story has been updated to clarify that non-compete agreements are illegal in California.