‘They think they can do anything’: Amazon psychologist describes workplace bullying and discrimination

An organizational psychologist formerly employed by Amazon on the management team at a Spokane fulfillment center says he was fired for exposing the bullying and inappropriate behavior of a key executive at the massive robotic warehouse.

Jonathan Fahlberg, a former senior human resources business partner, says Amazon management did not respond when he raised concerns about his supervisor, who he says made him a proposal and then retaliated against him. Instead, they were both summarily fired at the end of 2020 after Fahlberg made a formal request for support.

In an employment discrimination lawsuit filed in Spokane County Superior Court, Fahlberg argues that he was fired in part because he is gay. Fahlberg, 46, said he found himself on the receiving end of an Amazon HR system that he says fails to support workers or remove toxic managers.

“Given that they’re on the verge of being the biggest employer in the world,” he said, “they think they can do anything.”

Amazon defended itself aggressively, denying all allegations of misconduct while obtaining a protective order intended to protect Amazon’s human resources processes from public disclosure.

“We do not agree with the allegations made in the case and have no tolerance for retaliation, intimidation or harassment against employees,” said Maria Boschetti, spokeswoman for Amazon. Boschetti declined to answer questions about it.

Through his lawyer, Fahlberg’s former manager also denied Fahlberg’s claims that she groped him during a visit to his Spokane apartment while acknowledging that she had been to his house. this night. Amazon also admitted in court documents that Fahlberg’s manager visited him at his home that evening.

Fahlberg’s arrival at Amazon in the summer of 2020 was tinged with tragedy.

For 17 years, the Spokane-raised organizational and behavioral psychologist lived in Europe, where he developed a human resources consulting firm in London. Fahlberg left London in August 2018 following the death of her husband, Michael Rittiman. Bereaved and broke after Rittiman’s cancer wiped them out financially, Fahlberg headed home and, ultimately, Amazon.

In the spring and summer of 2020, Amazon was preparing to open a new “fulfillment center” near Spokane International Airport. Installation is heavy on the robots but still requires hundreds of human employees to move the packages forward. Hired in July 2020 while the warehouse was under construction, Fahlberg was contracted to provide human resources support to the approximately 1,500 workers expected to be employed there.

Tasked with managing a team of six to nine people, Fahlberg said he received almost no training for a job involving 32 different software systems.

“I literally had, ‘Here’s your computer, do your job,'” Fahlberg said. “From the start, it was a very negative experience.”

Fahlberg attempted to befriend his manager, a woman who had recently arrived in Spokane. He said the relationship took a turn on the night of Aug. 15, 2020, as Fahlberg marked the two-year anniversary of her late husband’s death. His manager came to his apartment and, according to Fahlberg, groped him during an unsolicited sexual advance that shocked him.

In court documents, Fahlberg claims his manager began verbally abusing him soon after, criticizing him in front of co-workers and forcing him to work night shifts. During a 15-hour shift, Fahlberg said she refused to allow him to leave to care for his dying mother.

“I didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye to my mom, because she kept me at the fulfillment center,” Fahlberg said in an interview.

As summer turned to fall, the bullying and verbal abuse escalated, said Ryan Best, Spokane’s attorney representing Fahlberg. During a one-on-one meeting in September, Best said in court papers, Fahlberg’s manager told him “nobody liked him and made fun of how [he] got up, dressed and spoke. She then threatened to punish him, the lawyer continued, if he told the others about the night she proposed to him.

“Mr. Fahlberg was terrified of the glaring threat to his career if he chose to seek help for the unwanted sexual advances,” Best said in court documents.

Writing in court, the woman’s lawyer said she had accepted an invitation to Fahlberg’s apartment, but denied that anything untoward happened during the August 15 visit. Her lawyer, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment, described her as a “happy bride” and denied Falhberg’s claim that he had been groped. In court documents, the attorney also denied Fahlberg’s claim that he was prevented from caring for his mother the night she died.

In late October, Fahlberg filed a complaint against his manager through Amazon’s human resources system for HR workers, HR4HR, and spoke with a representative for more than an hour.

“I was struggling and begging to train,” Fahlberg said in an interview. “It got to the point that I couldn’t take it anymore.”

During his conversation with an Amazon HR4HR representative, Fahlberg requested a transfer within the company and shared that he feared he had been placed in FOCUS, a performance enhancement system. Amazon employees scouted through FOCUS are generally ineligible for transfers, Fahlberg’s attorneys say, and are treated as problem employees.

Falhberg was fired Nov. 16, 2020, following a brief meeting with senior management at the Spokane facility. According to documents filed by Fahlberg’s attorneys, his manager was fired weeks later, on Dec. 4.

“They admitted something was wrong and they fired her, but they didn’t give me my job back,” Fahlberg said.

Amazon typically places employees at risk of layoff in a program called Pivot, which Amazon describes as an improvement program. They are offered successively less generous severance packages, offers that go from around three months of paid severance packages to one week’s salary if the employee refuses to leave voluntarily.

Fahlberg said he was not offered a severance package and that Amazon tried to recoup a signing bonus that was not contingent on his performance. Best argues that Amazon was doing the “cleaning up” when it fired Fahlberg and his manager. The company, he said, has refused to provide documents relevant to Fahlberg’s claims and recently obtained a protective order designed to limit access to documents it provided during the litigation.

“I believe Amazon is hiding documents,” Best said in early January. “I think [those documents are] will show that Amazon wanted to get rid of Mr. Fahlberg because he was gay and because his supervisor had behaved inappropriately.

Spurred on by employees circulating a petition, Amazon is currently conducting a wide-ranging investigation into how discrimination complaints are handled at the company’s cloud-computing arm, Amazon Web Services. This investigation follows the firing of Cindy Warner, a gay woman who had been an executive at AWS, and the departure of another worker, Laudon Williams, who both described hearing homophobic comments from Amazon executives . Warner is pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against Amazon.

Across Amazon, employees typically use an Amazon-operated instant messaging platform, Chime. Amazon retains control of Chime messages, which Fahlberg did not have access to after his firing.

A leaked text message exchange appears to show one Amazon official directing another – who said he wanted “cya for amazon” – to include an attorney in any future correspondence regarding a problematic incident. This, the senior executive argued, would protect the exchange from disclosure if a lawsuit were brought under attorney-client privilege protections designed to allow people to speak candidly with their lawyers.

“Slight change in approach,” the senior executive wrote in an Oct. 5, 2020, exchange. “Email me…but make sure [Amazon senior corporate counsel for labor and employment] Jaime Cole is in the To line and puts ACP in the subject. This places all conversations about it under solicitor-client privilege.

Best said Amazon management is confident the company can do whatever it wants regardless of state prohibitions on retaliation, hostile work environments and discrimination.

“We’re just looking for accountability,” he said. “Even big companies have to obey the law.”

Talking about his former employer, Fahlberg would come back again and again to the idea that he had been misled. Amazon, he said, markets itself as a place where anyone, regardless of race, gender identity or sexual orientation, can build a career. The truth was far from this mark.

“This image of diversity that they paint is a facade,” Fahlberg said. “I just want people to understand that they’re not that happy company. …And I hope it never happens to another person.

As litigation that could delay a trial continues, the case is expected to go to a Spokane County jury in September.