Google has significantly rolled back its diversity and inclusion initiatives in an apparent effort to avoid being perceived as anti-conservative, according to eight current and former employees.
Since 2018, internal diversity and inclusion training programs have been scaled back or cut entirely, four Google employees and two people who recently left the company told NBC News in interviews. In addition, they said, the team responsible for those programs has been reduced in size, and positions previously held by full-time employees have been outsourced or not refilled after members of the diversity teams left the company.
One well-liked diversity training program at Google called Sojourn, a comprehensive racial justice program created for employees to learn about implicit bias and how to navigate conversations about race and inequality, was cut entirely, according to seven former and current employees. Sojourn offered its last training to Google workers in 2018, four current employees said, and by 2019 it was cut completely.
Seven current and former employees from across a range of teams and roles at the company said separately that they all believed the reason behind cutting Sojourn and taking employees off diversity projects to move them elsewhere at Google was to shield the company from backlash from conservatives.
The current and former employees agreed to speak to NBC News on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal for speaking to the press.
“One of the major motivations for cutting Sojourn is that the company doesn’t want to be seen as anti-conservative,” one Google employee familiar with the company’s diversity programming said in an interview. “It does not want to invite lawsuits or claims by right-wing white employees about Google discriminating against them.”
Melonie Parker, Google’s chief diversity officer, disputed the allegation that Google has scaled back its diversity and inclusion efforts. “We’re really maturing our programs to make sure we’re building our capability,” she said.
Parker added that changes Google is making to its diversity and inclusion work is focused on the need to “provide a scalable solution across the globe.”
Google acknowledged it had ended Sojourn, but said it was not in reaction to conservative criticism. Sojourn ran for three years, Google said, and it was too difficult to scale globally, since it was focused on issues of racism in the United States and didn’t apply to the rest of the world where Google has offices. Google and the majority of its workforce are based in the U.S.
Four sources familiar with the Sojourn curriculum said the training was designed to be intensive, requiring multiple classes in small cohorts, and that the project was always intended to roll out slowly as the team learned how to scale up such an in-depth program. Working to reduce bias and address sensitive topics such as racial privilege and discrimination can’t be done in a single session, the four sources familiar with the Sojourn curriculum said.
The reductions to Google’s diversity work come at a time when employment in the tech industry — and at Google in particular — is overwhelmingly dominated by white and Asian men. Efforts to diversify the industry have moved at a glacial pace, despite increases in hiring across major Silicon Valley firms.
In 2019, Google’s employee diversity rose less than a percentage point from the previous year for black employees to 3.3 percent and just over two percentage points, to 5.7 percent, for Latino employees, despite increasing its overall workforce by over 20,000 employees. Google isn’t alone: At Facebook, only 3.8 percent of its employees identified as African American in 2019, up from 3.5 percent from the previous year.
Parker said even Google’s incremental progress is something she’s proud of, since each percentage point represents thousands of employees and it’s not easy to diversify while growing at the scale Google has.
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A key way tech companies have sought to retain employees from diverse backgrounds is by conducting companywide training programs on how to detect and counteract prejudice in the workplace.
But throughout 2019, employees who worked on diversity training programs at Google have been transferred to other projects, like working on implementing changes to sexual harassment policies and human resources support roles, and others had their work reduced or taken away entirely, the sources said.
Two other diversity training programs at Google, DEI for Managers, a primer to build skills around navigating issues of race on their teams, and Allyship 101, a program to learn about different types of oppressed groups and ways of supporting them, have also been cut, three former and current employees confirmed.
Google would neither confirm nor deny that these programs had been cut but said the concepts from these programs were folded into another manager training program.
The anti-diversity memo
Diversity has long been a topic of concern at Google, and the company has been public about its efforts to improve the diversity of its workforce for years. In 2014, Google was one of the earliest companies in the tech industry to release a report detailing the racial and gender breakdown of its staff.
But the company’s diversity efforts became a third rail in 2017, after James Damore, a former software engineer at Google, circulated a viral 10-page memo that spilled into public view that August. Damore criticized programs meant to address race and gender disparities within Google, claiming they were a waste of time because the reason there are more men than women in engineering roles is a matter of biological differences. He was later fired from Google for violating the company’s policies against “advancing harmful gender stereotypes.”
In January 2018, Damore sued Google for discrimination, claiming the company was biased against white men and employees with conservative politics. Two months after Damore’s lawsuit was filed, a former recruiter at YouTube, which is owned by Google, filed a lawsuit claiming he was fired after resisting an internal mandate to only hire diverse –– black, Latino or female –– candidates. Both Damore’s and the recruiter’s cases were moved to arbitration. Last week, Damore asked the court to dismiss his lawsuit.
Although Damore was fired, his complaints weren’t ignored. The lawsuits against Google for being biased against conservative employees marked the beginning of increased scrutiny by the right wing on Google’s diversity work.
The right-wing news website Breitbart began covering the internal tensions about Google’s efforts to become more diverse, publishing a July 2018 article on a speaker event hosted by Google on the topic of how white people can better navigate conversations about racism and privilege in the workplace. Breitbart accused Google of breaking its internal policy against using blanket statements about categories of people, such as about employees in certain racial groups.
“There was a meme going around that said white fragility shuts down discussions of white fragility,” a person involved with the event said in an interview, referring to a meme that circulated on an internal employee message board. The event wasn’t ultimately shut down, but additional security was provided.
“A hundred black employees could testify to the pain they feel in a climate that’s inadvertently hostile towards them and management will go back and say, ‘I need to get more data,’ and then three angry white men complain and everything comes to a halt,” the person close to the planning of the event said.
After the Breitbart article that summer, a raft of changes aimed at reducing the diversity and inclusion work ramped up across the entire company, according to three current and former employees. Even talking about the issue of diversity at work became strained, four sources said.
“In 2018, after all the Damore stuff, the higher-ups stopped saying the word diversity and were instead saying D&I, as in D ampersand I,” one current employee active in diversity advocacy at Google said. D&I is an acronym for diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Google denied this and pointed to the company’s public diversity report, which uses the word diversity in its title.
“Google has never shied away from using the word diversity. We have always used that word. We are not directing anyone not to use this word anymore,” said Parker, who added she could not comment on specific employee matters.
Another former Google employee who worked on artificial intelligence said that she was told by a head of artificial intelligence research at the company that he did not want to give updates on diversity and inclusion initiatives during a quarterly all-hands meeting in 2018 because, she recalled, he said “conversations about diversity could become a liability” at the company. She was further warned by the research director that any real updates about their diversity work could “come back to bite us,” the former employee said. NBC reached out to the research director, but he directed all communications to Google’s media relations department.
A third former Google employee, who left at the end of 2019, recalled attending a meeting in mid-2018 where people at the director level were told to no longer use the word “diversity” with their teams.
“If companies try to avoid addressing problems by banning certain words and reducing D&I work, it's just going to get worse, not better,” said Ellen Pao, the former CEO of Reddit and executive director of the advocacy group Project Include, which aims to increase diversity within the tech industry. “You cannot build a company culture by focusing on avoiding litigation.”
Diversity at scale
Parker said diversity and inclusion efforts have not been reduced, but rather have “scaled up.” But the sources told NBC News that numerous programs have been cut and staffing has been slashed.
The company told some staff members in April that it is partnering with an outside firm, Ibis Consulting, to create its new training program to advance racial equity in the workplace. Parker confirmed in an interview that the new program created will be “the racial equity training at Google” and will be introduced as a pilot in June.
Parker said the company is bringing in outside contractors because it lacked the expertise and resources internally. It’s common for large companies to turn to outside contractors to help with their diversity work. Other clients of Ibis Consulting, which has 10 employees, include Intel and Microsoft.
“In order to scale globally, we have to make sure that we have a partner that is able to do that at scale, and unfortunately internally we don’t have the global resources to build that capability across the size of our company,” Parker said. “So we needed to co-create with partners who specialize in scaling these programs globally across the world.”
Google would not provide further details on the companies it has hired as contractors to conduct its diversity and inclusion work.
Three current employees said they felt the newer programs introduced from outside vendors lack the framework that previous training programs had to help orient white people to conversations about racial justice.
“The new programs that are offered are instead about how black people can navigate racism in the workplace,” one employee said.
Parker denied this, and added that Google’s new “racial equity training” includes a racial justice component. “You can’t talk about racial equity without talking about racial justice, so any notion that that has been cut is just complete fallacy,” she said.
Google’s culture has long been seen as a model for other companies hoping to cultivate fast growth and innovation in the workplace. There’s a concern, Pao of Project Include said, that companies may see any alleged reduction of diversity and inclusion work at Google as a pass to follow suit.
"I hope other companies don't follow Google's lead,” she said.