SEATTLE - Amazon.com Inc employees who publicly demanded more aggressive action by the company to combat climate change have been told they violated company policy, with the U.S. e-commerce giant saying further infractions could end in firings, according to an employee climate activism group.
The warnings, over violations of a company policy on speaking to the media, could be seen as an early instance of corporate retaliation for employee climate activism, a business analyst said — but a public relations specialist said such restrictions were common corporate policy.
An Amazon spokeswoman described the company rules, which require advance approval for employees wanting to speak publicly about the company to the media, as "not new" and "similar to other large companies."
A representative of the group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that four of its leaders had held confidential meetings with the online giant's legal and human resources divisions in November.
The meetings came in the wake of record global climate protests in September that saw millions of people in more than 160 countries take to the streets, including outside Amazon's headquarters.
More than 3,000 tech workers in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood — home to Amazon.com and major satellite offices for Google, Facebook and Microsoft — rallied to protest the support their employers provide to fossil fuel companies.
A pledge to become carbon-neutral
On the eve of the climate strike, Amazon pledged to make its operations carbon-neutral by 2040. But some employees said the company should go even further and curtail the web and cloud computing services it provides to oil and gas firms.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, however, said his company would continue to work with energy firms, noting that "to ask oil and energy companies to do this (energy) transition with bad tools is not a good idea and we won’t do that."
In October, Amazon Employees for Climate Justice gave a statement to the Washington Post, signed by two employees, that criticized the company for "want(ing) to profit in businesses that are directly contributing to the climate catastrophe."
In November, after answering questions from corporate lawyers and human resources representatives, the two employees were warned by staff attorney Eric Sjoding that they had violated the company’s updated communications policy by speaking to the media about Amazon's business without approval.
Sjoding said the employees had "not knowingly" committed any offense.
But they were told further violations of the policy could lead to their termination, according to an internal communication reviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The company issued a new communications policy covering employee media interviews, public speeches and social media usage in September.
“As with any company policy, employees may receive a notification from our HR team if we learn of an instance where a policy is not being followed,” said an Amazon spokeswoman. “Our policy regarding external communications is not new and we believe is similar to other large companies," she said.
Kevin Mercuri, CEO of Propheta Communications, a New York-based public relations agency, noted that “Amazon's communications policy is in line with virtually every company.”
“Frankly, I am surprised the Amazon employees still have their jobs,” he said.
Even with her job potentially on the line, one of the Amazon employee climate activists said she disagreed with the company's restrictions.
“Amazon’s policy doesn’t make sense,” said user experience designer Maren Costa, who co-signed the Washington Post statement.
“All employees at every company need to be asking questions about their company”s role in the climate crisis and speaking up,” she said.
“Of course I am scared about speaking up now. I have kids and a mortgage like many others,” she said. “But I am also scared about how quickly we're destroying this beautiful planet where my kids play and learn and live.”
She said she was “proud of how much Amazon employees have done and continue to do to encourage our company to be on the right side of history."
The company has pledged to source all of its energy from renewable sources by 2030 and to acquire 100,000 electric delivery vans.
Praise from sustainability group
U.S. business sustainability group Ceres last year praised Amazon's carbon-cutting pledges as "groundbreaking." Amazon employees who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation during the September walkout said they had not received any warnings.
“I personally have received no retaliation, but I don’t think anyone from HR knows I went to the rally, one employee, who requested anonymity because of the new communications policy, wrote via e-mail.
“I took four hours vacation during that day but otherwise I was pretty quiet about it at the office.”
Business scholars and historians contacted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation were unaware of another large company having taken such action against employees who have criticized their company's climate policy in the media.
“It might be that every company has a policy of this kind, but (the policy) might also be wrong," said Brian Berkey, a business ethics professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“There is something fairly unique about the climate crisis because it affects future generations who aren’t able to participate in the public debate," he said.
"Speaking out about what one thinks the company should be doing doesn’t seem like the sort of thing companies should retaliate against by threatening to fire people or implementing policies that have that potential effect,” he said.
Report request from employees
In May, more than 8,700 Amazon employees backed a proposed shareholder resolution requiring the company to report how it plans to deal with climate change.
But the proposal received fewer than 30% approval at Amazon's shareholder meeting.
University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara, who studies tech companies, said Amazon's pushback on staff publicly criticizing the company "perhaps signals corporate action to come in 2020 as climate change protests build around the world.
“This is generally another reminder that despite its longtime “think different” rhetoric, big tech isn’t all that different from other industries,” she said.