By: Emily Birnbaum and Issie Lapowsky
Vanessa Williams was coming off of a big professional win in August 2018. The former marketing staffer on YouTube’s music team had just organized a successful event focused on the Caribbean entertainment industry. The speakers, including musician Wyclef Jean and executives from YouTube and Oculus, drew hundreds of predominantly Black tech workers from across the Bay Area to Google’s San Francisco headquarters for a night of discussion and networking.
Williams had planned the evening as part of her work as a leader of the Black@YouTube employee resource group. It also dovetailed nicely with her day job, which was, after all, to raise the profile of YouTube Music.
But shortly after, when Williams received her annual performance review, she said her manager made no mention of the event — or any of Williams’ other marketing projects, for that matter. Instead, the manager used what Williams called “racially coded feedback” about Williams’ personality, chastising her for her “sharp” tone and telling her to be friendlier. The only thing the manager mentioned by way of Williams’ strengths, she said, was that Williams was an advocate for diversity.
Williams felt stereotyped. “I felt like I was not being taken seriously as a marketer because of my interest in diversity and inclusion,” Williams said. She says she reported her concerns to human resources, urging them to push for audits of employee reviews to check for this kind of bias. In the end, though, Williams says an HR rep just talked to her manager and got her to rewrite the review and took no broader action.
A YouTube spokesperson did not comment on Williams’ account directly, but said the company investigates all concerns and often takes corrective action that employees are not privy to due to confidentiality concerns.
For Williams, the ordeal was emblematic of how HR departments fail Black and brown workers, by slapping Band-Aids on what are often much deeper wounds. “It wasn’t about my manager or my review,” Williams said. “This is going to happen to someone else later on. Another manager, another review.” Williams moved to a new role at Google shortly after the review and left the company for a new job in January.
Her experience with HR echoes the accounts of Black and brown employees across the tech industry. In interviews with more than a dozen people who either work in tech or advise tech companies on diversity, Protocol heard repeated concerns of complaints about issues of race left unresolved and HR departments functioning to protect companies from lawsuits, rather than to protect marginalized workers facing discrimination. Sources said employees of color often face skepticism, retaliation and even harassment from HR, leaving them without any recourse when they face discrimination in the largely white and male industry.
‘Total system failure’
Karla Monterroso, the CEO of Code 2040, said these issues stem from the fact that HR is often considered a “risk mitigation tool” for companies. Although it’s usually the only internal mechanism through which employees can register harassment and discrimination complaints, ultimately the purpose of HR is to protect the company, she said, incentivizing many HR departments to minimize allegations and shift the burden of proof onto vulnerable employees.
“This isn’t a ‘bad guys’ situation,” Monterroso said. “It’s a total system failure.”
In one recent high-profile example, Aerica Banks publicly alleged that Pinterest’s HR teams targeted her and subjected her to months of painful questioning after she filed multiple complaints alleging discrimination, retaliation and unfair treatment by her manager, the general counsel and the deputy general counsel. Banks was Pinterest’s public policy and social impact manager.
Shortly after she made the allegations, she said, the HR investigation turned on her. The investigators on the “business misconduct team” — all of whom worked in her department — questioned her for hours, often late into the night, over the course of several months. She said their questions became inappropriate and derogatory. At one point, the team investigating the matter compelled multiple employees to turn in their phones, threatening retaliation if they did not, Banks said.
“It was complete intimidation,” Banks told Protocol, referring to the whole ordeal. “They said, ‘We’re investigating your claims, but also we’re investigating you.'” She described the process as opaque and secretive. She also said the team did not put in place any processes to ensure her manager did not retaliate against her as the investigation unfolded, leaving her open to more harassment from the boss that she had made allegations against.
Ultimately, the investigation did not find any wrongdoing by her manager or others, according to a document obtained by Protocol that summarized the findings. For nearly every allegation — including complaints that the male general counsel had devalued the views of women in a meeting, and that the female general counsel had treated Banks differently than others because of her race — the investigators at the company said they found no evidence of discrimination. In one instance where Banks had alleged her manager made racially derogatory comments, the investigator concluded he was not guilty because the comments did “not indicate bias on their own and are not a violation of our Code of Conduct.”
“It was like telling me, ‘Sure, this happened to you … but we’re not going to apply our own code of conduct to it because your feelings don’t matter, its impact on you doesn’t matter, and we’re going to find any loophole to let your manager off the hook,'” she said.
Since Banks and her colleague Ifeoma Ozoma went public with their allegations several weeks ago, Pinterest has brought in an outside lawyer to investigate their claims. A Pinterest spokesperson said, “We never want anyone to feel the way Ifeoma and Aerica did while they were working at Pinterest.”
Open arms or a trap?
Nicole Sanchez, a tech veteran and top diversity consultant with Vaya Consulting, said she has watched a similar dynamic play out during her many years working with the industry: Often, according to Sanchez, when employees of color report instances of discrimination or unequal treatment, their concerns are dismissed and they face long-lasting repercussions for speaking up at all. “This is one of the missteps companies have made over and over and over again — waving a flag in HR like, ‘Hey people of color, underrepresented folks, come talk to us over here,’ but … it can feel like a trap,” she said.
Adam Thomas was at a conference when he noticed his white colleagues at a New Jersey-based ecommerce company were using “blaccents,” mocking African-American vernacular, in one of the company’s public Slack channels. He said one colleague during the conversation said, “Y’all crazy with the ‘jive talk.'” (Protocol is not naming the company because Thomas is under an NDA and cannot speak about the firm publicly.)
“That was super offensive,” Thomas, who was then the only Black employee at the company, said. He immediately brought the issue to the head of HR, who responded that she would make sure the people involved were reprimanded and it would not happen again.
Two weeks later, HR had not intervened, Thomas said. He received one apology from a man who worked for him. And when he sat down with the head of HR, Thomas said, she encouraged him to get over it and warned that he might not fit in at the company if he did not move past the situation.
“I didn’t know how much of a toll it would take on me — socially or physically,” Thomas said. “I was a mess. I had to take anti-anxiety pills for the first time in my life.” He said he doesn’t trust HR anymore after that incident.
When employees decide to report harassment or discrimination that they have faced, they are often asked to provide substantial evidence that there was ill intent or that the mistreatment was racially motivated. That high standard is often difficult to reach for Black and brown employees facing daily microaggressions from co-workers and managers, said Evelyn Carter, a director with diversity consulting company Paradigm.
“All too often, when it comes to racism, bias or inequities, I see organizations put the burden of proof on the impacted employee,” said Carter, who has worked with tech companies including Snap. “And yet, bias often emerges in subtle forms — brief interactions that may easily be explained away by some but that point to a consistent pattern of discrimination that cause measurable harm for employees’ well-being, health and workplace outcomes.”
Put on ‘trial’
On the flip side, when people of color are on the receiving end of an HR complaint, some tech employees said they have seen the allegations taken much more seriously.
Jonathan Lightfoot, who has worked in IT for 20 years, said he felt like he was immediately put on “trial” when one of his white employees reported him to HR for mistreatment several years ago at an IT consulting firm. Earlier in his career, Lightfoot said, he had tried to report instances of racism to HR but was not taken seriously. But “now that I’m a Black person in a leadership position and somebody makes a complaint against me, HR investigates me,” he said.
For two weeks, Lightfoot said he fielded questions from HR and turned over extensive emails and documents about his management of the team. At the end of the investigation, HR transferred Lightfoot’s white co-worker to another office, he said.
After the investigation concluded, Lightfoot said fellow managers, all of whom were white, began offering him unsolicited advice about leadership and management, even though the investigation was supposed to be confidential. He ended up choosing to leave the company within six months because he felt the working environment has become increasingly hostile toward him.
Sanchez said she has intervened in numerous situations in which Black people were seemingly targeted by HR, pointing out that the complaints often use coded language, such as describing Black men as “intimidating.” “There’s a set of questions to ask HR [in those instances], including, ‘Is this how you handle all cases where this is an allegation?'” she said. “That usually wakes people up.”
All of this contributes to a reluctance among Black and brown employees to even report issues to HR. One former Twitter employee who asked to remain anonymous said that a manager once reprimanded them for spending too much time focusing on “Black stuff,” which the employee took to mean work on diversity and inclusion. But the employee swallowed the comment, rather than raising it with HR. “You think: I still have to work with this person. Is there going to be animosity on this team because there’s an inquiry to this?” the employee said.
The employee said they genuinely believed Twitter’s HR department was committed to building a more diverse workforce, but that the company appeared to focus more on recruiting diverse employees and not enough on retaining them. “I think the goal with regards to diversity at Twitter was very much about bringing in new talent versus keeping the talent that was there,” the employee said, noting that that’s begun to change under the company’s new head of diversity, Dalana Brand.
A Twitter spokesperson said the company is “on a journey to becoming the world’s most inclusive and diverse tech company” and pointed to the company’s goal of having 25% of its workforce be underrepresented minorities by 2025. “We’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve got a lot of work to do and progress can never be fast enough,” the spokesperson said.
Ellen Pao, former Reddit CEO and co-founder of tech inclusion nonprofit Project Include, said the key to having an effective and fair HR department is a CEO who is dedicated to anti-racism. “At the end of the day, the CEO has to want to have that culture be healthy and have to want to root out the problems that are probably in their company,” she said. In 2015, Pao sued VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers for gender discrimination and retaliation.
Without buy-in from leadership, even well-meaning HR departments can find themselves hamstrung. In early June, the leaders of employee resource groups at Tesla sent a list of proposals to HR, pushing CEO Elon Musk to take action to address racism, following the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police. They’d already received heartfelt notes from several HR executives, but had yet to hear from Musk directly. One member of a Tesla employee resource group says they still haven’t.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t think HR is working in our interest,” the employee said. “If Elon doesn’t care about it, it’s not going to happen.”
On June 19, Musk did tweet that his two companies, Tesla and SpaceX, were making Juneteenth official U.S. holidays, but a letter from HR to Tesla employees specified that the day off would be unpaid. Tesla did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment.
YouTube, for one, has made changes to its internal investigations process since Williams made her complaint. A spokesperson noted that after receiving employee feedback about the difficulty of being part of investigations, YouTube launched an Investigations Care Team, where employees can seek additional resources, including counseling. They also created a policy that allows people lodging complaints to bring a support person from within Google to meetings throughout the investigation.
Diversity consultants who spoke to Protocol had a range of ideas for fixing HR. Monterroso suggested placing HR under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion rather than the legal department, potentially changing the incentive structure of HR workers. Carter recommended making diversity and inclusion a “critical core competency” for their HR teams. Sanchez said companies should create an entirely separate vertical within tech companies to deal with diversity and workplace culture issues outside of HR. Williams, the former YouTube employee, is building a tool to help managers identify and root out bias in their performance reviews.
“It’s a blind spot that tech has had for decades,” Pao said. “Now we’re starting to talk about it — but are we actually going to really solve the problem?”
“That takes work and that takes change,” she said. “That takes really looking at our own organizations and saying, ‘We have not done a good job.'”