Facebook struggles to recruit, retain Black technical employees

  • Facebook
  • Thursday, 16 Jul 2020

Black employees now comprise 1.7% of the social media company’s technical roles, up from 1.5% in 2019 and 1% in 2014, Facebook said in its latest diversity report. — Facebook/TNS

Facebook Inc hasn’t been able to increase Black representation in technical roles by a single percentage point since starting to report diversity numbers in 2014.

Black employees now comprise 1.7% of the social media company’s technical roles, up from 1.5% in 2019 and 1% in 2014, Facebook said in its latest diversity report. The demographic lags even as the company has made progress in other areas, like gender. Women now make up 24.1% of technical employees, up from 15% in 2014.

It’s not for lack of trying. Maxine Williams, the global chief diversity officer, is one of the tech industry’s most long-tenured leaders in her role, and has the backing of Facebook’s management, deep investment in trend analysis, internship programmes, recruiting and retention experiments. “I have support. I have resources,” she said. “I’m left with how hard the work is.”

Facebook’s numbers reflect the lack of diverse representation in the industry at large. But the company is also trying to convince Black employees to join and stay while it’s under fire for its impact on society. Williams, who was recently promoted to report to chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and sits on chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg’s executive team, says she now is involved not just in recruiting and retention, but in thinking about how Facebook’s products affect civil rights and inclusion.

Earlier this summer, some employees staged a virtual walkout to protest how the company handled US president Donald Trump’s posts, concerned his language was engaging in voter suppression and stoking racial violence. The debate escalated from there, as advocacy groups including the NAACP and the Anti-Defamation League urged advertisers to boycott Facebook and Instagram in July. Earlier this month, Facebook published the results of a two-year independent civil rights audit. Evaluators wrote they were “deeply concerned” about the company’s lack of action on Trump’s messages.

“It’s something we definitely have to take seriously,” Williams said. “We are sort of eyes open about where we have challenges – and people should be if they’re considering coming here – but we’re also eyes open about what we’re good at,” which is connecting people to their loved ones. Some Black employees join Facebook and have a good experience; some don’t, and go on to speak out publicly about the pain of it, Williams said.

Facebook is working to standardise more of its leadership training and worker evaluation so that an employee’s experience is less dependent on whether they happen to have a good boss. The company also started a program called Microphone, so employees can anonymously report uncomfortable moments, or microagressions, that don’t rise to the level of human resources violations. Some of the examples from reports are later used in training, Williams said.

It also might help to have more people of colour in management positions, she said. Facebook set a goal to increase representation by 30% in its leadership positions by 2025. That’s in addition to an existing target to have more than half of its workforce from underrepresented groups in 2024, up from 45.3% today.

But after seven years on the job, Williams said it’s impossible to pinpoint her biggest hurdles or their solutions. “If I knew the answer to that I would have flipped that switch,” she said. Facebook will just keep trying all its recruiting and retention strategies at once. – Bloomberg

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