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Tech companies are asking their black employee groups to fix Silicon Valley’s race problem — often for free

As Black Lives Matter protests captured national attention, tech companies have leaned heavily on black employee resource groups to put together programming for Juneteenth, host panels on race, and vet executive statements

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SAN FRANCISCO — A reporter and producer at Yahoo News, Marquise Francis usually devotes 6 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 this month, from offering emotional support to the group’s 450 members to meeting with top executives to ensure the company responds in a meaningful way.

Francis says he’s grateful to have the ear of the chief executive officer Hans Vestberg, who has been open to the group’s request for Juneteenth and Election Day to be paid holidays and for additional 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 the demands of his real work, 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.”

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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 women workers — said in interviews they welcome the visibility and access to upper management. But they worry 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 WĒ360, a consultancy to advise companies on inclusion. Already, she said, several potential clients asked her if 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 is 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 also 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 chief executive Sundar Pichai, after meeting with Google’s black employee resource group, this month committed to a 30 percent improvement on 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 percent 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 manager’s view of diversity. Many said their managers saw time spent leading employee groups as a distraction, even when it did not impact 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 says 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.

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Outside of the biggest tech 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.

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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. Early this month, 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.

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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 rewarded it accordingly.”

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Justworks, a New York-based software start-up, decided to start paying ERGs. Spokesperson Elliot Stephenson said he could not share details about the program, which was put into place this month, but Justworks plans to have if 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.”

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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 reputation.

“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 the effort she invested in the group was “extracurricular,” Hirpa stepped down from the role. In retrospect, she wonders if 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."

Correction: An earlier version of this story suggested the name of Slack’s employee resource group for black employees is “Earth Tones.” The name of the black employee group is “Mahogany,” while “Earth Tones” is the employee group for people of color more broadly. This story has been corrected.