April Glaser, NBC News, May 13, 2020
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.
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 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.