For black work­ers, a 2nd job but no pay

Em­ployee groups bear bur­den as tech firms fo­cus on sys­temic racism

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY NITASHA TIKU

san francisco — A re­porter and pro­ducer at Ya­hoo News, Mar­quise Fran­cis usu­ally de­votes six to 10 hours a week to his vol­un­tary role lead­ing a group for black em­ploy­ees at the site’s par­ent com­pany, Ver­i­zon. But as Black Lives Mat­ter protests spread and cor­po­ra­tions faced pres­sure to ad­dress sys­temic racism, Fran­cis has seen his work­load ex­plode over the past month, from of­fer­ing emo­tional sup­port to the group’s 450 mem­bers to meet­ing with top ex­ec­u­tives to en­sure that the com­pany re­sponds in a mean­ing­ful way.

Fran­cis says he’s grate­ful to have the ear of chief ex­ec­u­tive Hans Vest­berg, who has been open to the group’s re­quest for June­teenth and Elec­tion Day to be paid hol­i­days and for ad­di­tion

al trans­parency on work­force de­mo­graph­ics. But push­ing for black rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the midst of po­lice vi­o­lence and protests has turned what he said was once a “fun sec­ond job” into a heavy obli­ga­tion that com­petes with work de­mands, with­out ad­di­tional time or pay.

“You’re called to do this work in one sense,” Fran­cis said, “but it’s al­most like if you don’t, your voice won’t be heard.”

Black em­ployee groups are fac­ing such ten­sions as cor­po­rate Amer­ica grap­ples with con­cerns about racism. In the tech in­dus­try, which is still largely white, Asian and male, the ten­sions have been par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced in re­cent weeks as com­pa­nies have leaned heav­ily on th­ese groups to host pan­els on race, vet com­pany state­ments, al­lo­cate do­na­tions to racial jus­tice non­prof­its and shep­herd new di­ver­sity ini­tia­tives.

Seven­teen cur­rent and for­mer lead­ers of “em­ployee re­source groups” (ERGS) — for black, Latino, LGBTQ and fe­male work­ers — said in in­ter­views that they wel­come the vis­i­bil­ity and ac­cess to up­per man­age­ment. But they worry that th­ese pro­grams can give busi­ness lead­ers a pass on di­ver­sity by al­low­ing them to demon­strate sup­port for mi­nor­ity groups with­out di­ver­si­fy­ing the peo­ple in charge. And some say push­ing for change can hurt their ca­reers.

“The de­pen­dence on ERGS has sti­fled the in­dus­try be­cause it gives a false sense of progress” by sad­dling vol­un­teers with a small bud­get and dis­pro­por­tion­ate re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, said Do­minique Hollins, a vet­eran of Google and ebay, who helped launch an an­nual sum­mit of black and Latino groups in the Bay Area.

“We joined the ERG be­cause we needed help, but we be­came the help,” she said.

The re­luc­tance to in­vest in di­ver­sity can ex­tend to for­mal ad­vice, too, Hollins said. In June, she founded W 360, a con­sul­tancy to ad­vise com­pa­nies on in­clu­sion. Al­ready, she said, sev­eral po­ten­tial clients asked her whether they had to pay for her ser­vice.

Tech com­pa­nies say they deeply value the groups — such as Twit­ter’s Black­birds, Slack’s Ma­hogany, Face­book’s Black@ and Github’s Black­to­cats — and that it is nat­u­ral to turn to them for in­sights. Some are start­ing to ac­knowl­edge the bur­den it puts on em­ploy­ees.

In the past year, Twit­ter has in­cor­po­rated group lead­er­ship into per­for­mance re­views, which are tied to com­pen­sa­tion.

Francesca Fon­tenot, Twit­ter’s head of global busi­ness re­source groups, said in a state­ment that Twit­ter’s em­ployee groups “are blaz­ing a trail on our jour­ney to be­com­ing the world’s most in­clu­sive and di­verse tech com­pany. They play a cen­tral role in pro­mot­ing a cul­ture where every­one can bring their full au­then­tic selves to work and be­long.”

Ver­i­zon de­clined to com­ment for this story but pointed to a June 1 state­ment by Vest­berg that the com­pany do­nated $10 mil­lion to so­cial jus­tice groups and that di­ver­sity “makes us and the world bet­ter.”

Tech com­pa­nies also note that th­ese em­ployee-run groups are one facet of a larger strat­egy to di­ver­sify their ranks. Firms have opted to hire ex­ec­u­tives whose sole fo­cus is on equity and in­clu­sion, train em­ploy­ees about un­con­scious racial bias, and in­crease the pipe­line of tal­ent by part­ner­ing with schools and do­nat­ing to skill-train­ing pro­grams.

Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai, after meet­ing with Google’s black em­ployee re­source group, re­cently com­mit­ted to a 30 per­cent im­prove­ment in the num­ber of ex­ec­u­tives from un­der­rep­re­sented groups at Google’s se­nior level by 2025.

De­spite th­ese ef­forts, most tech com­pa­nies have not sig­nif­i­cantly in­creased the per­cent­age of black and Latino em­ploy­ees in the past six years, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic di­ver­sity re­ports.

The idea of work­place affin­ity groups en­tered cor­po­rate Amer­ica more than 50 years ago with Xerox, as a re­sponse to anti-black prej­u­dice fol­low­ing the 1964 ri­ots in Rochester, N.Y., where Xerox was founded.

To­day, group lead­ers said their du­ties stretched be­yond of­fer­ing mem­bers a sense of be­long­ing. They were fre­quently asked to serve as brand am­bas­sadors, di­ver­sity strate­gists, re­cruiters, event plan­ners, and fo­cus groups for poli­cies and fea­tures af­fect­ing users from their com­mu­nity. The an­nual bud­gets for th­ese ser­vices ranged from $1,000 to $20,000 a year. Mem­bers are sent to con­fer­ences such as AfroTech and Grace Hop­per to help re­cruit.

Group lead­ers said the im­pact this work had on their ca­reers de­pended on their man­agers’ view of di­ver­sity. Many said their man­agers saw time spent lead­ing em­ployee groups as a dis­trac­tion, even when it did not af­fect job per­for­mance. Oth­ers said they were ad­vised to stop par­tic­i­pat­ing. Some felt it was the rea­son they were held back from ex­pected raises and pro­mo­tions.

“It may ap­pear to the out­side as though the black ERGS are lis­tened to the most, but it is of­ten when lead­er­ship is look­ing to lever­age them,” said a for­mer leader of a black em­ployee group at a so­cial net­work­ing com­pany.

At Mi­crosoft, chief di­ver­sity of­fi­cer Lind­say-rae Mcin­tyre said in­put from em­ployee groups brings “tremen­dous im­pact and in­flu­ence to the work we do as a com­pany in many ar­eas.” For in­stance, groups helped shape how Mi­crosoft ap­proached June­teenth, of­fer­ing paid time off while be­ing care­ful not to frame it as a hol­i­day “but in­stead to ask all em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing those who are not mem­bers of the black and African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, to ded­i­cate time and space to ac­cel­er­ate in­di­vid­ual learn­ing and en­gage­ment on the is­sues.” Groups also helped Mi­crosoft cu­rate a list of re­lated books, pod­casts and films.

Out­side of the big­gest com­pa­nies, most tech firms don’t have an ex­ec­u­tive fo­cused on di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion. And lead­ers of em­ployee-run groups say there is high turnover for that role, which of­ten re­ports to hu­man re­sources rather than the CEO. This leaves driven but un­trained em­ploy­ees to pick up the slack, which has been the case as com­pa­nies try to find the right way to re­spond to de­mands for racial jus­tice.

At Foursquare, which does not have a des­ig­nated role re­spon­si­ble for di­ver­sity and in­clu­sion, two black em­ploy­ees who are mem­bers of Four­ma­tion, a mul­ti­cul­tural em­ployee re­source group, vol­un­teered to par­tic­i­pate in a panel on race with two speak­ers who have pub­licly shown strong sup­port for the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, in­clud­ing co-founder Den­nis Crow­ley, said di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions Jen­nifer Yu, one of Four­ma­tion’s lead­ers.

In an all-hands meet­ing at Sofi, CEO An­thony Noto told every­one to lis­ten to a record­ing of a meet­ing held for mem­bers of black em­ployee group Soulfi on cop­ing with trauma, ac­cord­ing to two em­ploy­ees. In early June, Elec­tronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson an­nounced that the video game com­pany’s black em­ployee group would or­ga­nize a day of fo­rums and vir­tual ac­tiv­i­ties to cel­e­brate June­teenth.

In re­cent weeks, the groups have also had to keep an eye on back­lash from co-work­ers who are un­com­fort­able with grow­ing sup­port of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment and at­ten­tion on racial in­equal­ity in the work­place.

Ni­cole Sanchez, the for­mer vice pres­i­dent of so­cial im­pact at Github and founder of Vaya Con­sult­ing, a Berke­ley, Calif., firm that helps com­pa­nies im­prove di­ver­sity, said a black em­ployee group at a tech com­pany re­cently asked for her help when com­pany con­ver­sa­tions on Slack got out of hand after a white co-worker raised ques­tions about Ge­orge Floyd’s “rap sheet.”

“We learned that lead­er­ship was wait­ing for the black ERG to say some­thing, which first and fore­most is not their job,” Sanchez said. She de­clined to name the com­pany.

Sanchez said tech com­pa­nies could do much more to fix un­der­ly­ing dis­par­i­ties in their or­ga­ni­za­tions if they ap­proached di­ver­sity like any other busi­ness ini­tia­tive.

“They can send a freak­ing rocket out to space but can’t fig­ure out how to how to project-man­age [di­ver­sity, equity and in­clu­sion],” Sanchez said. “Just do it the same way. Put smart peo­ple who are ex­perts on it, put the re­sources be­hind, give it goals, give it room to breathe, give it room to in­no­vate and re­ward it ac­cord­ingly.”

Just­works, a New York-based soft­ware start-up, de­cided to start pay­ing ERGS. Spokesman El­liot Stephen­son said he could not share de­tails about the pro­gram, which was put into place this month, but Just­works plans to have it for a year and then mea­sure the re­sults.

“Com­pen­sat­ing ERGS for the ad­di­tional work they do for the com­pany is only fair,” he said.

Sanchez sug­gested a dif­fer­ent route. If em­ploy­ers are de­pend­ing on the group to im­ple­ment their di­ver­sity strat­egy, “then peo­ple need to be re­leased from their 9-to-5 jobs to do it,” she said. “And if you’ve got peo­ple be­ing re­leased from their 9-to-5 jobs, you clearly have a job func­tion for which you need to hire.”

Scrutiny of how the tech in­dus­try uses em­ployee re­source groups in­ten­si­fied this month after black tech work­ers who pre­vi­ously led em­ployee groups at Twit­ter and Slack ques­tioned tech lead­ers’ claims to sup­port the black com­mu­nity.

Raki Wane, who pre­vi­ously led Twit­ter’s em­ployee re­source group, Black­birds, and now works in pol­icy com­mu­ni­ca­tions at In­sta­gram, urged com­pa­nies to re­think the way they use black em­ploy­ees to de­fend their rep­u­ta­tions.

“If you, an em­ployer have de­ferred the work of sup­port­ing the black com­mu­nity to the black em­ploy­ees with­out rec­og­niz­ing them be­yond empty plat­i­tudes, or pointed to your black em­ploy­ees to ab­solve your­selves, maybe re­assess that?” Wane wrote on Twit­ter.

En­gi­neer Duretti Hirpa, who helped start and run Earth Tones, Slack’s em­ployee group for peo­ple of color, tweeted, “Run­ning an ERG hurt my ca­reer but it helped my soul.”

After her man­ager told her that the ef­fort she in­vested in the group was “ex­tracur­ric­u­lar,” Hirpa stepped down from the role. In ret­ro­spect, she won­ders whether the ad­di­tional la­bor mainly served to bol­ster Slack’s rep­u­ta­tion. (Slack de­clined to com­ment.)

“The best thing I did there was mak­ing a whole group of peo­ple feel im­por­tant and that some­body cared what hap­pened to them,” she said, but “I don’t think I would or­ga­nize one again my­self. It’s a lit­tle too much of my heart.”

WASHINGTON POST IL­LUS­TRA­TION/ISTOCK

Tech com­pa­nies say that they value em­ployee groups such as Twit­ter’s Black­birds, Slack’s Ma­hogany, Face­book’s Black@ and Github’s Black­to­cats, and that it is nat­u­ral to turn to them for in­sight. Some are ac­knowl­edg­ing the ad­di­tional work bur­den that has de­vel­oped.

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