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Facebook employees say company tolerates racism

A long-time Silicon Valley investor and activist says the tech industry in general is unwilling to confront bias.
By: | November 12, 2019 • 2 min read

The allegations by a group of diverse Facebook employees that the company is too tolerant of racism did not surprise one long-time Silicon Valley investor and activist.

“I am always surprised when employees are courageous enough to speak out about an issue like this,” says Freada Kapor Klein, a partner at Kapor Capital and the Kapor Center for Social Impact in Oakland, Calif. “Sadly, I’m not surprised by the fact that they feel marginalized.”

The group of anonymous employees recently published a post on Medium alleging that the company tolerates bias against its black, Hispanic and female employees. They contend that their managers and HR did little to nothing when alerted to troubling incidents.

“Racism, discrimination, bias and aggression do not come from the big moments,” the employees wrote. “It’s in the small actions that mount up over time and build into a culture where we are only meant to be seen as quotas, but never heard, never acknowledged, never recognized and never accepted.”

Kapor Klein, who’s spent decades trying to get the tech industry to diversify and be more equitable, co-founded the Kapor Center for Social Impact four years ago. The organization serves as a business incubator for tech startups that develop new tools to eliminate bias and promote inclusion. Kapor Klein made headlines in 2017 when, despite being early investors in Uber, she and her husband, Lotus Notes co-founder Mitch Kapor, published an open letter calling on Uber’s leadership to do better in the wake of scandals at the company involving the treatment of female employees.

A deep-seated bias within the tech industry often stands in the way of positive change, she says.

“There’s a strong belief that tech is inherently a meritocracy – that the best and the brightest are the ones running the industry, getting promoted, getting venture capital funding,” says Kapor Klein. “I think tech has been unwilling to take a deep, thorough look at itself to see the ways in which dozens, hundreds if not millions of subtle biases are built into the culture of the industry.”

The Medium post includes a number of examples in which employees suffered racist behavior from colleagues—including one incident in which HR took no action after being alerted. The incidents also include managers who didn’t appear to take allegations of racist behavior seriously, admonished black employees to be more “reserved and respectful,” and colleagues who behaved aggressively toward black employees on online forums such as Blind.

The group that published the post describes itself as composed of 12 black, Asian, Hispanic and female employees. In one incident, a black employee wrote of being approached by two white employees while eating breakfast and being asked to clean up their mess. When the employee complained, they were told by their manager to “dress more professionally.” Another employee said that, although they’d received dozens of favorable peer reviews in Facebook’s internal performance-management tool, the employee’s manager chose to focus on the single negative piece of feedback received—that the employee was “arrogant, aggressive and self-serving.”

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Facebook is far from the only Silicon Valley company that’s fallen short in providing a diverse and inclusive environment.

Research by the Center for Investigative Reporting last year found that 10 large Silicon Valley companies did not employ a single black woman in 2016. The research, which analyzed 177 tech firms in the San Francisco Bay Area, also found that three of the large tech companies had no black employees at all while six did not have a single female executive.

The Medium post references former Facebook manager Mark Luckie, who published a post on the platform in 2018 accusing the social-media giant of “failing” its black employees, saying they face widespread discrimination and exclusion at the company and that it censored black users on its platform. Facebook attracted more negative attention when it removed Luckie’s post; after widespread complaints, it reinstated his post and apologized.

In an interview last year with The Guardian, Luckie said that, by initially removing the post, Facebook had inadvertently proved his point about the censorship of black users. He also said Facebook was reluctant to engage its black employees about racist incidents and other matters.

“It feels like Facebook can tackle a lot of issues … but when you talk about black people, all of a sudden there is silence,” Luckie told The Guardian.

In their Medium post, the Facebook employees allege that “not much has changed” since Luckie departed the company. “In fact, things have gotten worse,” they wrote.

In a statement from the company, Facebook’s vice president of corporate communications, Bertie Thomson, apologized.

“No one at Facebook, or anywhere, should have to put up with this behavior,” she said. “We are sorry. It goes against everything that we stand for as a company. We’re listening and working hard to do better.”

There are a number of executives at Facebook and other tech companies that genuinely want the industry to do better, says Kapor Klein. However, they’re often hamstrung by limited budgets and a lack of authority, she says.

The tech industry—particularly large companies like Facebook, Google and Apple—has spent more than $1 billion over the last five years on diversity and inclusion initiatives, yet “has remarkably little to show for it,” says Kapor Klein.

“The fact that no heads have rolled despite spending so much for so little suggests the industry just doesn’t take this seriously as a business issue,” she says.

Kapor Klein, who once served as head of employee relations at Lotus Notes, offers the following advice for HR leaders at Facebook and other companies: “Make sure you report directly to the CEO. Make sure you have a deep understanding of your company’s products and services so you can have a seat at the table when business decisions are being made. Make sure you have the necessary staff and budget to execute on the things the company expects you to execute on. And finally, be as much of a risk-taker as the founders of your company were – try new initiatives, explore the new tools for mitigating bias that are out there.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine is senior editor at Human Resource Executive®. A Penn State graduate, Andy also spent two years in the U.S. Army prior to attending college and attained the rank of sergeant while serving in the Army Reserves. He can be reached at [email protected]

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