Inside Amazon ProServe, a Growth Engine That Sparked a Workplace Probe – Business Insider

Inside Amazon ProServe, a Growth Engine That Sparked a Workplace Probe – Business Insider

Members of the group are in a fight with management to end what they say is a long-standing culture of 'bullying and bias'
Ten days after Andy Jassy took over as Amazon’s CEO in July, he was sent a petition signed by more than 500 employees that described a culture of systemic “discrimination, harassment, bullying and bias against women and under-represented groups.”
It was the type of information any boss would dread receiving when starting a new job. In this case, the allegations involved Amazon Web Services, the cloud business Jassy had overseen for well over a decade.
The petition focused on a group within AWS called ProServe, its professional-services unit, and came on the heels of a lawsuit by a ProServe employee, Cindy Warner, who alleged she was fired for speaking up about gender discrimination at the company.
Twenty-one current and former AWS employees told Insider the allegations in the petition and lawsuit reflected long-standing problems at ProServe, including bullying, shouting, derogatory remarks about women, other biased comments, retaliation against people who complained, and scant punishment for wrongdoers. Many of these people spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation; their identities are known to Insider. Some people agreed to share their names.
“There was this unspoken culture within ProServe. It was really not very healthy, and it wasn’t a secret,” Laudon Williams, who worked in the group from 2016 to 2020, said. “Everyone knew what the problems were, and everyone knew who the people were that caused the problems.”
Williams wrote a widely shared LinkedIn post detailing why he left AWS in August 2020. He said the reasons included that he had heard a senior leader use homophobic language, that colleagues were afraid to go to human resources, and that the company’s performance-management system was used to push people out.
Jassy aims to make Amazon “Earth’s best employer,” but one that answers to shareholders keen to see growth continue. His performance as CEO will partly be determined by how he navigates this balancing act — at ProServe and beyond.
Amazon said in a statement that the allegations of misconduct at ProServe did “not reflect the culture of Amazon.” It added that the company was “investigating claims about the culture within the ProServe team” and “committed to that being a thorough review, which takes time to get right.” 
In response to the petition, Amazon told Insider that it had taken steps to understand the concerns raised from ProServe employees and that it was surveying the ProServe group to determine next steps. 
Still, employees in the unit are leaving in droves. ProServe’s attrition rate in the first quarter was almost double what was expected, a senior-level employee said. Pravin Raj, a director in ProServe who has been accused of misconduct by several employees, has seen a significant number of leaders on his team exit as of late April, the senior-level employee added. An Amazon spokesperson called the figures inaccurate, but declined to provide specifics.
Meanwhile, Amazon this month moved Todd Weatherby, the former head of ProServe accused of gender discrimination in Warner’s lawsuit, to an “advisory role” in a sweeping reorganization of the unit, according to internal emails viewed by Insider. In February, Weatherby was also moved to report to Uwem Ukpong, who was hired from the energy-technology company Baker Hughes, to run a new AWS Global Services group that combines ProServe with other customer-facing businesses.
Created in 2012, ProServe has helped transform Amazon’s cloud from a niche offering favored by tech-savvy internet startups to a mainstream platform relied upon by major corporations. ProServe employees are essentially on-call cloud consultants who work directly with VIP customers like Nestlé, BMW, and Samsung, helping them set up and maintain their use of Amazon’s cloud products.
Multiple people told Insider that for AWS to meet customer and partner demand, managers in the group were hired too quickly. ProServe’s head count was growing about 78% a year, a ProServe employee who joined the group in 2015 said. (Amazon said the group’s head count grew 50% a year on average.)
New leaders were often brought on with relatively little management experience and ended up running fairly large teams simply because ProServe was growing so quickly. And the group didn’t have a culture or system for turning these people into competent managers, Williams said.
“We made too many sacrifices, and we hired people we shouldn’t have hired into senior level,” an employee told Insider.
Such management challenges were exacerbated by an aggressive, male-dominated culture, insiders said. Women accounted for roughly 20% of ProServe’s 7,000 employees, less than Amazon as a whole in the US, which had 31.4% female staff, according to its 2020 diversity report.
For Warner, a tech-industry veteran who joined ProServe in February 2020, these problems came to a head in a phone conversation with a male colleague and an Amazon HR representative. Her lawsuit, filed in May 2021, said the call was intended to address an internal turf spat over a VIP customer but quickly went off the rails.
“You are nobody,” Warner’s colleague shouted at her, according to the complaint. “I’m going to make damn sure you go nowhere in this organization!”
He then called her a derogatory term typically used against women, the suit alleged.
Though HR investigated the incident and brought it to Jassy, then AWS’ CEO, Warner said the man was not disciplined. Weatherby, her manager, then “mocked” her for taking offense, she said.
“That’s when I sought representation,” she added.
An Amazon representative said the company “conducted a thorough investigation into Ms. Warner’s complaints as soon as she made them and found her allegations to be unsubstantiated.” Its motion to dismiss the case is pending.
Other ProServe insiders described Raj, a department director and a Cisco Systems veteran, as particularly difficult to work with. They said he bullied staff, was prone to bursts of anger, and made derogatory remarks about women and people of color.
One ProServe employee said Raj “went berserk” and screamed at them following a recent disagreement about a project.
“It was not something you’d expect in a professional environment,” this person said. Another employee corroborated this person’s story.
Three former ProServe employees said Raj had a history of making racially charged remarks, including introducing himself as a person of color with a white partner and encouraging other people of color to “integrate.”
“He’s very assimilationist,” one of the people said. “He was of the mind that if you just ‘do and act like us,’ then you’ll be fine.”
Several female employees who worked at ProServe told Insider they and others steered clear of working with or for Raj.
“He talks over women. He doesn’t listen. He will take credit for women’s ideas,” a woman who worked with Raj said. “He’s like the epitome: If you looked up in the dictionary ‘worst male to work with,’ he has got all the attributes.”
Another woman who worked on a team close to ProServe said she always avoided Raj because she knew his reputation for “arrogant and entitled” behavior. A different female ProServe employee said she’d been recruited by Raj to join his group but had been warned by nine women, some of whom had worked for him, to stay away.
“‘Whatever you do, don’t take that job,’” she quoted those women as saying. “‘He is god-awful to work for.’”
A fourth woman told Insider that Raj had acted as her ally, telling her he was “pro-women,” but never delivered on promised career opportunities. When she confronted him, the woman said Raj told her, “Well, if you don’t like it, leave.” Another woman recounted a similar experience in which she said Raj had promised a female employee career advancement but, behind closed doors, discouraged others from working with her and disparaged her work.
There have been repeated complaints about Raj sent to Amazon’s HR department, according to four people with knowledge of the matter.
In her lawsuit, Warner said several ProServe employees had previously complained about Raj’s “discriminatory and harassing conduct.” 
Raj was a high performer in ProServe and often acted as Weatherby’s “enforcer,” so he was shielded from repercussions for his misbehavior for some time, several people said. This description was corroborated by eight other people who worked at ProServe and said Raj would dole out punishment on Weatherby’s behalf.
Last summer, he was moved to a new role reporting to a different manager rather than directly to Weatherby, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Insider. At the time, Raj was reintroduced as a leader who could listen. He hosted breakout sessions and individual meetings where employees could “meet the new Pravin,” this person said.
An Amazon spokesperson said Raj denies the allegations of misconduct detailed in this story. Raj and Weatherby did not respond to direct requests for comment from Insider.
Warner and several other ProServe employees said managers and senior leaders would use Amazon’s performance-management program, known as Focus, to punish staff who spoke out about the group’s problems.
A few years ago, Raj put a male employee into the Focus program after the employee criticized his leadership of the ProServe advisory group, Warner said. The person was a “star performer” who had simply “crossed Pravin,” Warner said, adding: “That’s how the process was used against him.”
Another ProServe employee told Insider that Raj put them in Focus because of what Raj described as an “attitude problem.” The person said they hadn’t been underperforming and found out about the change from a hiring manager when they tried to transfer to a different team.
Focus is intended to coach underperforming employees, but instead, is used as a weapon to prevent people from speaking up about problems at Amazon, the person said.
In July, after the petition alleging bias and bullying at ProServe was circulated internally, AWS hired an outside firm, San Francisco’s Oppenheimer Investigations Group, to investigate.
Nearly 10 months later, insiders said they hadn’t received updates on the inquiry or any messages addressing the petition’s concerns. Warner, who was initially optimistic about the initiative, said she considered it “a smoke screen.”
“They had to do something to quiet people down,” she said.
Three people who worked at ProServe, including one who was contacted by Oppenheimer directly, told Insider that they and women, in particular, had been wary of speaking with the investigative firm out of concern that their statements would not be anonymous as promised. Documentation from their interviews is stored in Amazon’s servers, one of these people said.
In a statement, Amazon said it “will continue to communicate with employees about the investigation.” A spokesperson also denied that employees had raised concerns about the confidentiality of the investigation, and said staff were informed they “may communicate completely confidentially” with Oppenheimer.
Do you work at Amazon or have insight to share? Contact reporter Belle Lin via encrypted email (bellelin@protonmail.com) or corporate email (blin@insider.com). Contact reporter Ashley Stewart via email (astewart@insider.com), or send a secure message from a nonwork device via Signal (+1-425-344-8242).
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