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How tech HR departments fail Black and brown employees

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.”