In speaking to workplace diversity consultant Kim Crowder about Amazon’s racial equity audit, you get a sense of its true significance. We’ve seen the buildup to this moment, Crowder told TriplePundit. We’ve seen high warehouse injury rates, under-paid employees, inequitable hiring and promoting. We’ve also seen the impact of employee activism, she said, although the real changes have yet to come.
Brookings Institution Fellow Molly Kinder brought the audit into context when speaking with CNN Business. She said, “Amazon is by far one of the most successful companies during the pandemic. They’ve seen just enormous growth, large profit in-creases and big share price increases,” But, she added, those who are “really seeing the real fruits of that financial success,” are the “disproportionately white” executives and major shareholders. In 2020, about 20 percent of Amazon’s corporate and tech workers were Black, Latinx, Native American or multiracial, compared to just over 60 percent of warehouse and call center workers.
Amazon isn’t the only large corporation being forced to take a hard look at its racial landscape. Apple is conducting a civil rights audit. Tesla is facing a suit from the state of California concerning alleged racism and harassment at a manufacturing plant. Google parent Alphabet is being scrutinized over board diversity. Johnson & Johnson shareholders are pushing for their own racial justice audit.
Well, the list goes on. Amazon’s initiative starts to look unspectacular in a landscape of so much reckoning, especially when you take into account the lackluster way the company has pursued the audit. Matthew Sweeney, a spokesperson for New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office, expressed some concerns in a statement to CNN Business: “Comptroller DiNapoli and the state’s pension fund look forward to learning more about Amazon’s proposed racial equity audit, but remain concerned that the company has provided few details and has made no assurances that the audit will be independent.” DiNapoli had previously brought forward a shareholder proposal requesting that the company undergo an independent review of how it handles civil rights, equity, diversity and inclusion.
What is impressive about the story, Crowder said, is how workers voiced their concerns and finally gained the attention of the shareholders of the second-biggest company in the United States. Most recently, a Staten Island warehouse created the company’s first U.S.-based union, the Amazon Labor Union. Crowder also referenced a petition that over 600 warehouse workers signed and delivered in 2019, calling for improved working conditions.
“I think that that is what's most powerful to me, is that the reason they're having this audit is because of those folks in the warehouse pushing forward.” That’s one effect this news could have, she said — the realization that employees have a voice, and they have agency.
Amazon’s audit could be a warning to companies — if they take it that way — but it could also be a roadmap, if the leadership takes recommendations to heart, Crowder said. For example, Amazon may be asked to do a better job of taking qualitative data into account. That’s something Crowder emphasizes in her work building equitable and inclusive work environments. Issues around safety, for example, can come down to the qualitative, she said.
The case for considering qualitative data can be described like this…workers aren’t simply robots hired to get a job done. Treating them as such doesn’t pay off. Crowder said a productive organization sees its employees in a humanistic way. It’s no secret that Amazon has had a hard time retaining hourly workers. Some have observed that the company has even built a high turnover rate into its business — but unsustainably, as recent worker rights efforts have shown.
There is a business case for building diversity, equity and inclusion into a workplace. In leadership, McKinsey and Company has found that those most diverse executive teams are one-third more likely to claim “industry-leading profitability.” And when it comes to a more equitable work landscape, the economic benefits could equal almost $3 trillion in gross domestic product.
For Amazon, though, already an incredibly successful company, another question might be more relevant. Crowder asked, “Is the organization willing to make that change? Is that part of the organization's moral code?” In moving forward with this audit, that’s what Amazon is going to have to ask itself, she said.
Image credit: Tim Mossholder via Unsplash
Roya Sabri is a writer and graphic designer based in Illinois. She writes about the circular economy, advancements in CSR, the environment and equity. As a freelancer, she has worked on communications for nonprofits and multinational organizations. Find her on LinkedIn.