Aussie urges caution after transfer to AWS US turns sour

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Aussie urges caution after transfer to AWS US turns sour

An Australian AWS employee offers a cautionary warning for anyone invited to work at a tech giant firm in the United States.

Sanjeshni ‘Jen’ Hussain told CRN that after she was internally headhunted to take up a management-level role at AWS US, she found herself subject to bullying and discrimination at the hands of her higher ups.

She also ran head long into Amazon's notoriously byzantine and opaque performance management culture, which has been the subject of coverage in the US business media. The parties are still in dispute and the facts are therefore still contested, however when approached with the opportunity to reply to specific accusations against the company, a spokesperson for Amazon declined to do so.

Hussain was well known and well respected for her work. She was the recipient of two AWS awards and was frequently flying to and from the Seattle HQ to help the US team with various projects.

After three years with the company, working her way up to marketing and programs manager for AWS APJC, she was offered a transfer to the US to take up the global version of the same role.

However, Hussain has alleged that following a successful first year in the US, multiple changes in management and a move from the Seattle office to San Francisco, she experienced bullying, racial prejudice and unsubstantiated accusations of poor performance, all of which have resulted in a diagnosis of PTSD and 18 months of battling to be heard.

The warning for anyone thinking of taking up a similar offer for AWS or any other corporate giant: go with caution.

When she first received the offer of a three-year contract, working at the heart of the biggest company in the world, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

“When I first heard that I got the [US] job, there was a bit of concern because I'm from Australia, so I was going to have to [initially] leave the family behind. But the excitement. The excitement,” Hussain recalled in an interview with CRN Australia.

Hussain noted that her mentors at AWS were encouraging but also expressed some concern. 

“They said, ‘Jen, opportunity doesn't knock on the door twice. Just take it and you'll figure it out.’ They did worry about me because they know I'm super kind … they said, ‘just be wary because some of the people out there can be quite cutthroat, quite brutal.”

That warning would prove to be prophetic.

Today, Hussain is on medical leave from AWS in her new home in San Francisco's Bay Area. After relocating her family to the US, she is unable to simply leave the company as her visa is tied to her employment with AWS.

She and her husband, Mohammed, are now left scratching their heads and working with lawyers, trying to get answers from the company that once thought so highly of her.

“It was going so good” – How it began

Hussain initially went alone to the US and, after a few months, was joined by Mohammed, who left his six-figure job in Melbourne, and their son, who had just begun his first year at Monash University.

She was given an L1A visa, a non-immigrant visa that covers intracompany transfers for executives or managers. As Hussain’s lawyers explained, this level visa comes with the expectation of working independently and providing instruction to others where needed.

“[Jen] was a top performer,” her husband explained in our initial interview.

“All her Fortes (Amazon’s annual appraisals) are glowing: 2017, 2018, 2019 – there is not even a scar. If there was a problem, we would have known it. If Jen was a poor performer, we wouldn't have relocated here. 

“It was going so good. I mean, we are not stupid, right? We are senior people, we've had over 15, 20 years of experience in this industry. Why would we move if we knew that we were going to be shafted?”

In September of 2019, a new director stepped into the role of AWS training and certification global marketing director and appointed ‘T’ to lead the team in which Hussain was working.

It was in conversation with her colleagues that Hussain realised that T was treating her differently to others in the same team.

“He would look down on me, undermine me; it was actually quite evident,” Hussain explained. 

“Other colleagues and team members would be hearing it and they said to me, ‘Every time he talks to you, it seems like he's yelling at you or the tone of his voice is different when it comes to you ... I thought that was his natural tone, to be honest, because he was constantly yelling at me, so I'm like, ‘Okay, maybe it's just normal’.”

One of Hussain’s colleagues, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed this.

“Jen and I would go on calls or just be interacting, sometimes it was also with one of our other colleagues, and it became really clear to me that the way I was being treated, which was very well, was not the same [as how others were treated].

“I would be like, ‘[T] did this or he said this, and Jen was like, ‘Oh, he yelled at me, or, like- it was just very apparent that I was just being treated very well. And she wasn't.”

Just prior to the pandemic, Hussain asked if she could expense a monitor to help her process data from spreadsheets on the days she worked from home. She was told no. When she brought up that someone else on the team had expensed a US$1000 monitor, T chose not to reply.

Hussain said her work was suddenly under constant scrutiny and regardless of the praise she was receiving from other stakeholders within the company, it was never good enough for her immediate managers.

Hussain’s colleague said, “[My work] would be really well received, but then Jen’s would have to go through, exaggerated, but 7000 reviews basically.

“If one little thing was misspelt, or a comma was missing she got reamed for it. Whereas, if my paper had the same thing, it was overlooked or no one said anything, or they just might have made that change themselves.”

Hussain’s lawyers allege that by subjecting her to constant and pedantic oversight, that they were actually breaching the terms of her visa, potentially opening her up to having it cancelled if she were audited. 

Not only would this mean having to relocate her whole family back to Australia, her contract with AWS states that if she has to leave the company for any reason, including being terminated by the company, she will have to pay back the thousands of dollars that she was provided for relocation to the US.

Hussain said that after months of constant criticism, micro-management and being undermined, she was encouraged by colleagues and those to who she delivered work, to apply for a job in a different department.

Hussain decided she would and informed T, who was initially supportive.

“I applied for a job on 24 of April and then he said to me – he was very supportive, you go ahead and apply, you're going to be a big loss to the team when you move and blah blah all these great things that I wanted to hear,” Hussain explained.

But, she said, within hours of applying, she was told that she would need vice president and director approval to move internally.

Which was how she found out that she was in the ‘Focus’ program.

“What does that mean?” – Focus and Pivot

Amazon’s performance management plan has been covered extensively in the media.

Ostensibly, an employee who is under-performing is first placed into the Focus program where they are given tasks and monitored. If they do not achieve these tasks to the manager’s satisfaction, they are placed in the Pivot program where they are given the option of severance or going through training to learn how they can improve.

The company has always maintained that the programs are designed to help those who are underperforming to meet the standards expected of them.

However, of the three current and former employees that CRN spoke to, none had ever seen a document outlining this process in more detail, or heard of someone being placed in the program and successfully working their way out of it.

Hussain still does not know why, how, when or by whom she was initially placed in the Focus program and, she said, it is one of the biggest things that has plagued her thoughts.

“They can't even give us a document to say, ‘here's the reason why you are in Focus, because you did not deliver x y, z, which should be documented.’”

CRN asked AWS these questions. We also asked to see any documents outlining the Focus and Pivot processes, and why they would invite someone to move from Australia to the USA only to place her into a performance review program just months into her arrival.

An AWS spokesperson responded, “Managers are required to share with an employee that they are not meeting expectations and outline specific growth areas,” and “Like most employers, we provide managers with tools to help employees improve their performance and grow in their careers at Amazon. This includes resources for employees who are not meeting expectations and may require additional coaching.”

Hussain confirmed that she was not told she was on the program – the first she heard of it was when she was refused the internal transfer.

This is not an unusual occurrence. The Seattle Times reported earlier this month, "Amazon instructs managers not to tell office employees that they are on a formal performance-management plan that puts their job in jeopardy unless the employee explicitly asks, according to guidance from an Amazon intranet page for managers."

An ex-AWS employee, who also asked to remain unidentified, told CRN about a similar experience. In her case, she had applied for an internal move and been interviewed and accepted.

“I successfully got the other job [then], it was one conversation [between the prospective and current managers] that destroyed my career at Amazon,” the ex-employee said.

“He said, ‘You are on performance management.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ There was zero transparency. And that's exactly what they did to Jen. They put her on a performance management program, without even disclosing it.”

For the ex-employee, after being declined the new role they asked HR for a list of tasks to do to get out of the program, but was shocked at what they gave her.

“I said I want KPIs, I want to deliver. I’m currently employed, I want to deliver against deliverables – and my goal, my KPI, number one was ‘look for another job’. In writing.”

To those who live and work in Australia, or even most OECD countries, stories of at-will firing and being unknowingly performance managed out of a job sound almost unbelievable thanks to federally legislated protections.

Going back to the warning that Hussain received at the outset of this story, she may well have been prepared for ruthless people, for having to prove her worth through working unreasonable hours. However, what she was not prepared for what she described as an institutional culture of ruthlessness across AWS, the US tech industry as a whole, and in the general attitude toward workers in the USA.

“A picture paints 1000 words” – Discrimination

Hussain’s experience was made even worse, she alleged, because she is a woman of colour.

Though Hussain is an Australian who has lived in Australia for most of her life, her ethnic background is Fijian Indian.

She admits that no one ever said anything directly to her about her race or ethnicity but when others brought it to her attention, she said the pattern of discrimination became clear.

Hussain’s AWS colleague noticed that another teammate who had moved to the US office from overseas was also on the receiving end of mistreatment.

“Jen could do nothing right, I could do nothing wrong and our other colleague was in the middle,” the colleague explained.

The ex-AWS employee also noted that after the change of management, they saw a clear racial division between the people that were being brought into the team, and those who were leaving.

“I can only say that if you look at the leadership team and who's being brought in, a picture speaks 1000 words.”

Hussain said that everyone she was delivering work to commended her performance, her attitude and her ability to be ‘strategic’ (AWS speak for looking for ways to improve and advance within the company). She could think of no reason other than her being non-white and non-US-American that she faced issues with her employer.

Eventually, T moved up in his role and made an outside hire, 'G', to manage Hussain, which she said made things more difficult and confusing.

Hussain recalled an incident just before she went on her second medical leave for health reasons, “When I asked her how long it's going to take me to get off the performance concerns that [T] raised, she actually said to me, ‘Oh, it could be three months, six months, it could be about a year, I don't know.’ 

“I said, “What does that mean?” And she said, “Can you stop harping on about your performance thing and just focus on the real work?” 

Hussain said she realised that they just wanted her out.

An AWS spokesperson sent the following response to the accusations of racial bias, similar to one found in other stories about racism at AWS in outlets across the globe:

“Amazon works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one of our employees, and these allegations do not reflect our values. We do not tolerate discrimination or harassment in any form and employees are encouraged to raise concerns to any member of management or through an anonymous ethics hotline with no risk of retaliation. When an incident is reported, we conduct a prompt and thorough investigation and take appropriate action, up to and including termination. We have investigated these claims and have not found evidence to substantiate them.” 

However, they either could not or chose not to offer any other explanation as to why Hussain experienced negative treatment from her managers or why she was put into the performance review program.

“I want this story to land on the right ears” – Now and next

Hussain and her family are now in limbo. Hussain said that each day is a struggle as she comes to terms with what has happened and what may come in the future.

“I always wake up thinking, you know, I don't have a career anymore and, from a well-being perspective, it's really depressing to actually think about it; that I don't have an income floor, none of that. I’m new to the country, right? So not working means you're kind of financially backward as well. It has defeated the entire purpose of even being here.”

She said she wants to work. She loved her job, loved being the go-to person in a team, and would happily go back to work for AWS under a different manager once her mental health allows it.

AWS meanwhile insists it is working toward better representation and diversity, even as employees claim the opposite

Amazon’s status as the apotheosis of Big Tech means it attracts highly driven, high achieving talent but, as Hussain and both the AWS colleague and ex-colleague explained, also allows individual managers to force them out.

AWS employees are told they will constantly be given work and it is up to them to say no; to manage their own workloads. Yet they live under threat of being placed into a restrictive performance management program and not even being told.

The AWS colleague described the company’s HR and employee relations as “a joke” who take the manager’s side except in extreme circumstances. 

Hussain said no one reached out to her when she was on medical leave to offer any support transitioning back to work. The only meetings she had with HR and managerial staff were to give her a list of tasks and dates to finish them by.

“I want this story to land on the right ears because I feel like it’s been falling on deaf ears,” Hussain said.

Hussain said that she wants people to be aware that what may feel like a golden opportunity can turn sour with little warning, and with little recourse to be had. 

She and her family took their time choosing to move to the US for the duration of the contract. They made what they thought was an informed decision based on how well she was doing with the company and all the potential benefits that came with being at the heart of the tech industry.

However careful she may have been, in order to make the decision, Hussain had to put some trust into AWS as an employer to make the move. And she was burnt.

Now, she hopes her story will serve as a cautionary tale that can at least provide some guidance for others who may be offered a similar opportunity: walk that path with caution because there are wolves aplenty and the tech giants have no interest in keeping you safe.

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