The famous Amazon blue badge, which identifies many a South Lake Union denizen, is being replaced by a sleek, high-tech version that’s harder to counterfeit. But some staffers say the new badge reminds them of funerary portraits used in some Asian cultures.
The famous Amazon.com blue badge, which identifies many a South Lake Union denizen, is going the way of the dodo, as the tech and retail giant rolls out a new version it says is “cooler.” But the updated look hasn’t gone down without a controversy that underscores the challenges of running a global workplace.
The brightly colored badges, already sported by some employees, have a large, high-quality, black-and-white picture against a black background. The design drops last names, too, replacing them with a personalized version of the first name (say, “Jeff” instead of “Jeffrey Preston Bezos.”) above the person’s email handle.
According to internal documents seen by The Seattle Times, Amazon says the “clean, modern design” makes it easier to read and utilizes “next-generation” technology incorporating enhanced security features.
A super-high-quality gray-scale picture and a distinctive appearance ensure the “look and feel is unique, and would require much more effort to counterfeit than Amazon’s previous generation of badge,” the document said.
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The badges’ color frame reflects tenure: Those for employees with five years or more are encased in yellow, 10 or more years are represented in red, and purple means 15-plus years.
It’s not an entirely new thing (the old blue badges have outlines) but it’s more visible this time around.
The badges were developed as if they were a high-tech device — with focus groups, lots of concepts, and a stellar role by Lab 126, Amazon’s own skunkworks unit. “We hoped to delight Amazonians with a beautiful new badge,” said the document, which explains the rollout to employees in lots of technical detail.
Not everybody was delighted with the new look, however. A group of employees thought the black background against which the employee picture is set — the result of a laser turning the badge’s photo-sensitive plastic to black wherever it doesn’t etches a gray-scale image — made it look like the funerary portraits seen in some Asian cultures.
In an internal message viewed by the Times, a staffer wrote that in his culture black-and-white photos on black background are used only to depict the dead and that it made him uncomfortable.
Amazon acknowledged the issue internally in an email sent to an affinity group for Asian employees. The company mentioned getting both “positive and critical feedback,” including concerns about the badges being “culturally insensitive to some people.”
“The Badge Reimagined team is taking this feedback seriously,” the email said, inviting recipients to focus groups aimed at discussing the issue.
To the more general Amazon public, the company said it’s working with human resources, affinity groups and country managers “to better understand the issues and create a path forward that everyone can support.” Meanwhile, employees who don’t want the new badges don’t have to pick them up.
An Amazon employee of East Asian descent who spoke on condition of anonymity said it wouldn’t be a surprise if several hundred people decide not to pick up the badges.
Haicheng Wang, a University of Washington professor of art history specializing in Chinese art and archaeology, said that in China it’s common to have ancestral portraits in black and white displayed against a black frame.
But “it’s not always the case,” he said, as there are also wedding pictures in black and white and some funerary portraits are in color.
“I think what’s disturbing is perhaps the background, it’s so black,” he said.