A senior manager at Amazon is suing the company for alleged racial and gender discrimination.
Charlotte Newman says she was hired at a lower level than she was qualified for, denied a promotion and sexually assaulted by a former boss. She started at the company as a financial services policy expert at Amazon Web Services in 2017.
Newman experienced what’s called down leveling, where an employee is hired for a job that’s at a lower level than the position they applied for, she says, and that practice is more common for Black women at Amazon. She interviewed for an international senior manager role but the company offered a solely U.S.-focused manager role, she says.
“Once I started within a matter of months, it was clear that the real intention was for me to cover Americas-wide work and that I was given an international portfolio,” she says.
Newman says her pay and title didn’t match her workload. This could cost her hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and equity over time, she says.
“We also reviewed Ms. Newman’s interview process, leveling and onboarding, and determined that she was properly placed in her role at the company,” an Amazon spokesperson said.
When she started at Amazon, she says she heard stories from other Black employees that described a pattern of down leveling. Employees would interview and then receive an offer for a lower role. The company would give “highly subjective” reasons for these decisions such as “fit and executive presence,” Newman says.
The lawsuit alleges that Newman’s first boss at Amazon Web Services used racial stereotypes, saying she was intimidating, “too direct” and “just scary.” The manager used this type of language often starting within months of Newman joining the company, she says.
Amazon employs a disagree and commit leadership principle, meaning employees who feel strongly about an issue are encouraged to disagree with their superiors. Newman says the comments from her former boss were “hypocritical” and “odd” considering the feedback she received in her previous roles.
“One of the things that was really harmful about hearing that from a manager was that it really undermined my sense of confidence in my work and in myself,” she says.
Managers on her team created an environment that allowed colleagues to make comments such as calling Newman a “gorilla” because of a jacket she wore, she says. Another colleague encouraged her to take a photo with a “jambalaya wine bottle” to turn her into a caricature, she says.
According to the lawsuit, there was a pattern of sexual harassment and assault for years by one of her bosses, who was investigated and fired. Newman says she decided to take legal action after the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd sparked a racial reckoning in the U.S. in 2020.
“It caused me to really think deeply about the things that I had remained silent about,” she says. “Outwardly the company was supporting Black Lives Matter, for example, but internally, I knew that that wasn't showing up as it applied to employees, particularly Black employees.”
“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,” the company spokesperson said. “Any situation where even one of our employees is feeling excluded or unsupported is unacceptable.”
Newman says this statement doesn’t reflect the current company culture at Amazon. The company needs to eliminate down leveling, she says, and reassess and level compensation and promotions, which corporations such as Salesforce have done.
“It just shouldn't be the case that a victim of sexual harassment and assault can come forward and not be protected,” she says. “There should be real safeguards put in place and an actual program so that employees who experience sexual harassment or discrimination have some kind of redress.”
Douglas Wigdor, Newman’s lawyer, has represented survivors in several famous cases in the #MeToo movement, including representing several women in the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse cases and 20 former Fox News employees in lawsuits against that network. Newman’s lawsuit is comparable to his previous cases because it concerns systemic racial discrimination, he says.
Newman’s “distinguished career” has included working for Sen. Cory Booker and other members of Congress, he says. Amazon should have given her the proper role, promoted her and protected her from sexual harassment, he says.
“Unfortunately, Amazon is so focused on their bottom line and their customer experience and not their employee experience,” he says. “It really is astonishing. Given Amazon's presence in corporate America as one of the largest employers and one of the largest companies, they should really be leading by example.”
Continuing to work at Amazon is difficult but Newman says she doesn’t want her career to suffer. She hopes the lawsuit will change the company’s policy so women and other employees who experience sexual harassment don’t endure the same treatment.
“It just to me seems grossly unfair that I would have to leave and that the perpetrators of the acts against me are allowed to stay,” she says. “In staying, I'm taking a stand against a practice, a long-standing practice, that I just do not think is fair.”
Editor’s note: Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR.
This segment aired on March 9, 2021.