Do the names Tim Bray and Christian Smalls mean anything to you? If you’re concerned about the pervasiveness of corporate wrongdoing and the widespread toadyism that enables it, they should. Bray and Smalls are two fearless souls who dared to challenge Jeff Bezos and his mighty Amazon empire.

Bray is the Amazon conscientious objector who quit his job last week and forfeited about one million dollars in unvested stock options because “remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised.” Smalls is a former supervisor at Amazon’s Staten Island’s warehouse who was fired after speaking out about what he and other workers alleged were unsafe working conditions. Amazon claimed it fired Smalls for not following a company order.  

Bray is an HR person’s worst nightmare. The playbook for discrediting executives who go rogue is to dismiss them as “disgruntled” employees. Amazon can’t pin that label on Bray because the Canadian-born software engineer said being employed in the company’s cloud computing division was “the best job I’ve ever had, working with awfully good people.” He also said the division, “treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization. I genuinely admire its leadership.”

That’s quite an endorsement. Unfortunately for Amazon, Bray has an issue living off the avails of working-class exploitation.

Bray refused to look the other way about lower level employees he deemed as legitimate whistleblowers being fired for what he believed was their activism. One of them is Smalls, a supervisor and father of three who generated media attention for allegedly unsafe Covid-19 conditions at Amazon’s warehouses. Bray was uncomfortable with the “brutally insensitive remarks” a senior Amazon executive made in connection with Smalls’ firing.

Bray was referring to a leaked memo revealing that general counsel David Zapolsky at a senior management meeting derided Smalls as “not smart or articulate” and advocated making him “the face of the entire union/organizing movement.” Bray noticed a commonality of the victims of Amazon’s HR execution squad.

David Zapolosky

“I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of (the fired activists) is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?” Bray facetiously asked in a blog post explaining his resignation.

I so admire Bray because he forced me to admit and confront my own shortcomings. I strive to be an ethical person and when I was in the corporate world I spoke out or refused to participate in activities I felt were wrong. But if my ethical mettle was tested with one million dollars in unvested stock options, I likely would have come up with one million reasons to justify sticking around. Notably, Bray didn’t just quit in protest. He said that he “escalated” his concerns through “proper channels” and to the “appropriate people.” He’s not by nature a quitter.

Bray doesn’t appear to need or want his 15 minutes of fame. He’s widely respected in his field, and as best I can tell, he didn’t grant any media interviews. Bray outlined his carefully considered thoughts and feelings in a blog post, heeded the counsel of “voices I respect” and removed “mean spirited” references from earlier drafts.

Bray is fortunate that he had sufficient means to act on his conscience, a luxury most American workers don’t have. This explains the Boeing workers who openly derided their company’s management and knew not to put their families on the faulty 737 MAX but kept the knowledge to themselves. Boeing, too, had its unsung hero: The publicly unknown plant production manager who quit rather than oversee a manufacturing process he/she knew was faulty. (The Boeing plant is in suburban Seattle so maybe Pacific Northwest water is infused with ethicstrolytes.)

The media is always quick to label someone a “racist” for making some comment not to their liking. Yet Zapolsky has been given a pass. He’s been quoted as saying his “personal and emotional” comments were driven out of concern for the safety of Amazon employees. He denied knowing Smalls’ race when making the comments.

If that’s the case, Zapolsky never heard Smalls speak and just assumed he wasn’t smart or articulate, perhaps because the only educational requirement for an Amazon warehouse worker is a high school education. Zapolsky holds an undergraduate music degree from Columbia and a law degree from UC Berkeley. The media said Zapolsky apologized for what he said at the management meeting but if he was sincere, he would have apologized to Smalls and found a way to reinstate his job.

Recode May 1, 2020

Without exception, every company I ever represented looked to its lawyers to keep them on the straight and narrow. At Amazon, lawyers appear to have a different role. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that employees have used data about independent sellers on Amazon’s platform to develop competing products, a practice that company has repeatedly denied, including to Congress. And who was the executive swearing to Congress that Amazon didn’t engage in the practice? Zapolsky deputy Nate Sutton.

Zapolsky’s plan to publicly discredit Smalls was contained in a memo that found its way to Vice News. I’m hoping the motivation for leaking the document was moral outrage. That would suggest Amazon has other lurking employees with a conscience.

I naively thought that Bray’s departure might stir an uprising by other well-paid Amazon employees. If Amazon engineer Anton Okmyanskiy is any indication, that’s not going to happen.

Okmyanskiy in a LinkedIn post acknowledged and praised Bray’s principles, but then went on to hail Amazon’s ethics and morals and said the company should continue “to do better for humanity.”

Mr. Okmyanskiy, how about scaling down the ambitions somewhat and taking a few baby steps? Like finding Chris Smalls a job.

According to the New York Post, Smalls remains out of work and has been unable to file for unemployment insurance. Commenting on the growing spate of negative publicity Amazon is receiving, Smalls said: “Whatever they do in the dark is coming to light.”

Mmm.  Sounds like a variation of “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Where have I’ve seen that line before?