On Monday, 350 Amazon employees issued public statements on Medium in their own names. The authors were deliberately violating a company ban that forbids employees from commenting publicly on the company's business without obtaining prior permission. Some of the statements criticized Amazon's actions thus far on climate change, calling them insufficient. Some did not comment on climate change, but criticized the no-public-statements policy itself. Some even complimented Amazon, encouraging it to continue its efforts to reduce its carbon footprint -- but that didn't matter, since any kind of public statement violated the policy. All the statements came with the same implicit challenge: "Fire us -- all 350 of us -- if you dare."
These statements are not the first time Amazon employees have made their voices heard on the subject of climate change. About 1,700 of them joined a widespread walkout by tech employees last fall, and six months before that, 4,520 of them sent an open letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that the company take climate change seriously after media reports that Amazon was aggressively pursuing oil and gas customers for Amazon Web Services.
Amazon had this no-public-statements policy in place for years, although it was not routinely enforced against activist employees. But two weeks before the September walkout, as employees were sending around emails to organize their participation, Amazon updated its policy, streamlining the process for requesting permission to issue public statements and requiring a "business justification" for such requests. Then, in November, at least two employees who had been quoted in a Washington Post story received emails from Amazon's legal team reminding them of the policy and warning that further violations could result in disciplinary actions, including termination. (It seems a mind-bending irony that a company owned by Jeff Bezos would fire employees for talking to another company owned by Jeff Bezos.) One employee, Maren Costa, told the Post that she'd also been called into a meeting with human resources about the matter, which she called "scary."
Rather than being cowed, Costa went back to Washington Post reporter Jay Greene and showed him the email. And then the employees took the next logical step of organizing this week's joint statement, inviting other Amazonians to send in their own comments and promising that nothing would be made public until at least 100 employees had done so.
An Amazon spokesperson told Inc.com, "While all employees are welcome to engage constructively with any of the many teams inside Amazon that work on sustainability and other topics, we do enforce our external communications policy and will not allow employees to publicly disparage or misrepresent the company or the hard work of their colleagues who are developing solutions to these hard problems." Asked what form, if any, such enforcement will take in the case of the 350 employees who made this week's public statements, the spokesperson said that the company will not comment on individual personnel matters. Honestly, it probably doesn't have to. The moment any of these employees are fired, they're likely to make it known through their Twitter account and the press.
Amazon faces unpleasant choices.
It's hard to keep from thinking that Amazon has painted itself into a corner here. If it does nothing, it will be seen as backing down, and its policies may not be taken seriously. If it fires some or all of the employees who wrote the Medium post, it risks an exponentially larger amount of the negative publicity Google got after it fired two activist employees late last year, even though Google said the firings were because the employees had violated policies about accessing and sharing internal documents, and not because of activism.
Besides, in today's tight labor market, Amazon probably doesn't want to fire these employees. It seems likely that those who'd be most willing to put their names to the public statements are those who know they'll easily find work elsewhere, either because they have hard-to-find skills or because they're really good at what they do.
If Amazon takes disciplinary action without firing them, it risks having them leave anyway. And, of course, once they're out of the company, they can say whatever they want with little fear of further repercussions.
Amazon noted in a comment to the Post that many other companies have similar policies, and of course that's very true. Google's over-the-top confidentiality policy makes Amazon's look generous. It forbids employees from discussing their work with anyone outside of Google, even their spouses. It even bars employees from publishing a novel about "someone working at a tech company in Silicon Valley," unless that novel has been reviewed and approved by Google's lawyers. The only problem with all this is that it might very well be illegal under both federal and California law, which guarantee employees the right to discuss their working conditions with each other. Google has been sued by at least one employee because of this policy.
It's time to ask: Is it really worth it? Companies like Amazon and Google are known for hiring the best and brightest, and the best and brightest are unlikely to be intimidated by overreaching confidentiality policies. In a booming economy with historically low unemployment and stiff competition for tech talent, even the threat of losing their jobs probably won't scare them very much.
Employers have long used non-disclosure agreements to stop employees from sharing trade secrets with competitors. Those kinds of policies make sense to just about everyone. But policies that punish employees for even discussing their jobs, or making any kind of public statement, or even writing a novel? They do more harm to an employer's reputation than whatever employees might have to say.