Hostile Environment: Tech’s DEI Disaster
an exploration of the unhinged workplace culture gripping the halls of our country’s most important companies
At this point, most people have internalized a sense the tech industry is run by crazy people. In fact, the industry is run by cowards terrified of a very small fraction of their employees — a legitimately crazy subset of political activists with many friends in the activist (establishment) press. For the last couple years, we’ve spent a great deal of time criticizing tech leadership for ceding authority to the deranged excesses of cultural authoritarians. But there’s a larger story we haven’t yet explored: what about the greater majority of tech workers, terrified of being targeted by their most unhinged colleagues, who just want to do their jobs?
Liz Wolfe is an associate editor at Reason and a weekly guest on The Hill’s YouTube show, Rising. She guests today for Pirate Wires with a wild exploration of the hostile workplace culture increasingly normalized in the halls of our country’s most important companies.
At the Amazon fulfillment center where Leonard works, auditing how other employees on the floor pack boxes, everyone walks under a rainbow arch of balloons each day of Pride month, which is celebrated each June.
The rainbow balloon arch wasn’t a total shock to Leonard. Amazon has forced affinity groups on its employees, both those who work in warehouses and those who sit at desks all day. There’s PWD (people with disabilities), BEN (Black Employee Network), Indigenous@Amazon, and BPP (Body Positive Peers). There’s Glamazon, which Leonard says is for LGBT people.
Most of the warehouse’s Pride activities are relatively innocuous, but silly — dress-up contests, for example, and morning briefings reminding people how to be a good ally. Company-issued notices placed on bathroom stalls talk in glowing, over-the-top terms about Amazon’s commitment to queer employees and, just a column over, remind fulfillment center workers that their bags will be X-rayed when they leave the warehouse to go home. “I couldn’t care less who the folks over there loading trucks at the ship dock like to sleep with,” says Leonard. “Not my business.”
“Maybe if I was a two-spirit polyamorous noncomforming whatsit I could celebrate my sexuality on the company dime,” Leonard snarks, noting that he’s a heterosexual guy who’s put off by all this stuff. “Seems like a real double-standard.”
He’s far from alone in feeling this way. Few people dispute that it’s a good thing that more gay people than ever before can safely mention their spouse at work, without fear of being discriminated against or being cautioned to shut up. But there’s a big difference between rightful, overdue expansion of civil liberties, and where we’re at now.
Many employees of tech companies, both large and small, express frustration with work time being diverted to mandatory Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) sessions and Ibram X. Kendi talks; anger at being hassled to join affinity groups — employee groups for people to gather with others who share the same identity or characteristics — or waste meeting time declaring their pronouns; discomfort with managers sounding off about police brutality or the recent Dobbs abortion ruling. They point to a broad sense that work has become the land of extracurriculars, as if it’s freshman orientation on a college campus or a summer camp and you have to pick an activity schedule.
Harry, who works at a fully-remote expense management software company, says a whole DEI bureaucracy has sprung up in the last few years including “cultural events” around “ridiculous things like ‘the rich history of AAPI mixology.’” (Names have been changed throughout to protect people’s anonymity; company names have been noted where possible.)
With “explicit pressure from management to put your pronouns in your Slack profiles and your email signatures” and “company-organized ‘safe space’ and ‘coping workshops’” (featuring therapists!) in the wake of the Dobbs decision, Harry’s learned not to push back. When he lodged dissent a few years ago, it yielded nothing; he learned to lay low.
Sandy, who works for the email marketing company Mailchimp, says after the Dobbs ruling, which overturned Roe v. Wade, “everyone was posting about it in various slack channels, talking about it as if it was something that would cause you not to be able to function at work.” The company matches certain charitable donations, like those dealing with racial justice and LGBT issues — including the nonprofit Drag Queen Story Hour. “I don't feel comfortable saying I don't want to contribute to these things because I don't agree with them,” says Sandy.
The company has chosen to provide its services, free of charge, to certain organizations — like racial justice organizations, in the wake of a newly reinvigorated Black Lives Matter moment that started following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. But such generous pro bono provisions only go one way.
Until recently, Kasey worked for a company based in Santa Barbara that makes doctor-patient portal software. If you make the foolish mistake of using the word guys in Slack, “a slackbot would pop up and tell you to use a more inclusive term,” she says. People on her team would get 45-minute lectures on Fridays by what’s termed “equity groups” on topics like proper pronoun usage.
The worst part, she adds, is that the software was actually really good. The company was “KILLING it.” She’d watched it progress from summer 2020 until recently, when “the woke [stuff] happened, then their competitors passed them and innovation fell behind.” She didn’t end up leaving because of wokeness, but because the product was suffering — which is a related issue, she notes, if company resources are being frequently diverted to glorified HR efforts in lieu of improving the product. “Far more effort was spent on pronouns than on what we were paid to do.”
“My big concern is that DEI is driving away employees who lean more conservative culturally and politically,” says Abby, who adds that she’s a leftie with some “libertarian sympathies.” “I might not agree with their world views, but we didn't hire them for those, we hired them for their skills.” At her 1,200-person company which does single sign-on authentication, “it’s not one individual or group of individuals doing anything extreme, rather it's the perception that there's some institutionally correct way of existing, even if that way runs contrary to your beliefs.”
Sam works for GitHub, an internet hosting/software developing provider with sub-5,000 employees. A three-hour meeting was held for employees on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death. Affinity groups are robust, holding biweekly hourlong meetings, for queer people, black people, and women. “Microsoft made all their subsidiaries’ employees watch a series of videos featuring legal scholar and author Kenji Yoshino about covering and allyship, and how we shouldn't make people feel like they need to hide their true selves because he used to feel like he had to hide the fact that he was a gay Asian,” says Sam. “Covering is always bad, [Yoshino] said, unless you hold certain types of views, then you may want to just accept the way things are and keep your head down.”
“I'm shocked they haven't ended up with an Antonio Garcia Martinez type situation where a small group of employees Slack-bully someone into getting fired,” Sam says. “I know it's coming.”
Two former tech employees’ names popped up as I chatted with today’s disillusioned workers, one fired from Apple, the other from Google, for being purported misogynists.
James Damore is widely regarded as the original workplace-wokeness whistleblower, though he landed in that spot accidentally. While lonely in China, he wrote a document that he circulated internally at Google, where he’d been an engineer for four years.
Calling Google’s culture an “ideological echo chamber,” Damore argued that disparities between men and women in tech roles could be partially explained by biology — something advanced by prominent clinical psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. He circulated his memo internally in July 2017; Gizmodo published a leaked copy of it on August 5; Damore was fired two days later.
He pursued a National Labor Relations Board complaint, then a class-action suit, then private arbitration. He now lives far away from Mountain View, and doesn’t do many speaking events or TV appearances.
“HR departments are hard to change,” Damore says, about how things are now. Back when he published his document, he says, Google had “a culture of writing a document to put down your thoughts, getting people’s feedback, and then if other people agreed, it moving up the chain and possibly causing a difference. I was talking with people that were leading these sessions…and at least some of them seemed open to talking about it. That was the real result that I thought could happen.”
But that’s obviously not what happened, and if 2017 was too late to engage in some kind of robust process of free expression and inquiry, it’s not clear that it’s gotten any better since. Now, corporate pandering to the most sensitive among us has become institutionalized by HR departments throughout the industry.
ZoomInfo, a business-to-business database, tracks how many “diversity” and “inclusivity” professionals are sought by companies. Prior to 2010, fewer than 500 companies had D&I-related postings they were hiring for; by 2014, that had risen to 876 positions; by 2019, it had ballooned to 2,250. More than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies now have a diversity-related professional in an executive position. D&I job openings surged quite conspicuously by about 50 percent in June 2020, per Glassdoor, in the immediate aftermath of Floyd’s killing, as protests and riots ravaged the country. It’s not clear to most employees how to stem the tide of D&I obsession, even if they feel it’s distracting from actual productivity or missing the mark.
If Damore was the opener, Antonio Garcia-Martinez could be regarded as the follow-up act. He started working at Apple in April 2021. But employees rankled by his book, Chaos Monkeys, which was published in 2016, circulated a petition alleging Garcia-Martinez’ views — at one point, he writes that the women of San Francisco are “soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit” — were contrary to the diversity and inclusion values of Apple. The company, which had been aware of his book and questioned personal references about Garcia-Martinez’s character during the hiring process, buckled; Garcia-Martinez was axed soon after.
“Breaking from the ideology, even slightly, brings little reward,” says Victor, who has logged a total of five years in senior roles at DoorDash and Lyft. Victor says that, when interviewing potential new hires, he was always assigned the “diversity and inclusion” competency section, which involved asking everyone — even potential new hires who were themselves racial minorities — about their commitments to diversity. He says his speech was constantly edited, and he once got in trouble for using the “racist” term grandfathered.
“I don’t even necessarily believe the founders agree with all of this stuff,” says Victor, “but for many tech companies (especially gig companies that are effectively sub-minimum wage jobs to nowhere) DEI allows them to distract from the more cruel elements of their business model.”
At Annie’s company, Qualtrics, Ibram X. Kendi was paid a “hefty sum of money” to peddle his ideology, which attributes all racial differences to racism, at a company-wide meeting. Afterward, an email was sent to all employees, declaring Qualtrics an “antiracist company,” she says. (“In order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist,” argues Kendi, who charges $20,000 an hour for his talks and typically requires that in-person speaking events come with a first-class plane ticket for his travel.)
When a colleague of Annie’s posted on an internal message board that someone else should be invited to speak on the topic of race to expand the range of ideas heard — he recommended Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, Coleman Hughes, Glenn Loury, Bob Woodson, or Shelby Steele — people on his team suggested, publicly, that he resign. He didn’t back down, and Annie says she messaged him to show support as outcry rained down. “I have no idea what to do in this type of environment,” says Annie.
“2020 was an absolute tipping point,” says Adam, who is black, in his early thirties, and works at Meta/Facebook. After George Floyd, Adam’s manager asked if he wanted to come over to his house to decompress. Adam said no, since, well, they’re not really friends. There are now DEI sections of all-hands meetings (including people introducing themselves with their pronouns), and meetings for women and nonbinary people only.
“Somewhere I’m flagged as the black guy, so [sometimes] meetings just show up on my calendar,” says Adam, who adds that it’s the performative wokeness that really bothers him. In the wake of the Dobbs ruling, CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a companywide directive not to talk about the recent news. Adam says he was supportive of this rare instance of the company asking employees to leave politics at the door.
Each person I spoke with alluded to fear that their job would be in danger if their coworkers knew what they really believed. But these people aren’t QAnon boosters or Marjorie Taylor Greene stans; they’re normal political moderates, the types who populate small cities that dot the heartland, or who live in larger cities but are put off by the extreme political rhetoric of the people they encounter at parties. Some describe themselves as conservative Christians, others as queer liberals who just aren’t keen on the ideological conformity that’s spreading around them. A bunch of them — a disproportionate number — are Californians, which makes sense given the tech foothold there. They’re not folks who’ve crept in from the backwaters, who’ve had no exposure to these types of ideas. They understand the arguments being made, and they either reject them, think they have no place at work, or wish, at the very least, that alternative views would be entertained. They’re afraid of being fired for beliefs like “in some cases, abortion is wrong,” or “there are innate differences between the genders” — views that up until about two minutes ago were seen as well within the Overton window.
Though naysayers may claim otherwise, these tech employees are not people who simply want their companies to enforce a different sort of ideological conformity.
The path forward, many of them emphasized, is simply for their companies to get back to work. Many are worried about competitors trouncing them, taking advantage of how distracted they’ve become. Many want to be left alone, and are confused by why their beliefs should matter to those they work with. Why, after all, do you need to talk about your beliefs on broken-windows policing with your colleagues, or when it’s morally wrong to procure an abortion?
The classic argument is that those issues — policing and abortion and other topics that crop up in the news — affect your colleagues’ day-to-day lives; though it may have been untoward to discuss them at work in the olden days, we now weigh their importance and exigency, recognizing that our colleagues have a moral imperative to support us in our struggles, to take care of the whole self we’ve brought to work.
But this is flawed, primarily because a random software engineer or HR professional’s thoughts on broken-windows policing simply don’t affect policy outcomes very much. Ensuring people you work with have the “right” beliefs doesn’t actually bolster a marginalized employee’s real-world safety, to the extent that their claim of being unsafe is even valid.
Recall the “this puts Black @nyt staff in danger” incident in June 2020. That argument — that the Times running an op-ed by sitting Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), which called for domestic troops to be sent in to suppress widespread protests and riots over the police killing of George Floyd, could conceivably harm black staffers at the paper, which they rallied around on Twitter — was a bad one, but a case study in lower-level employees honing their workplace safetyism arguments.
Cotton is a sitting U.S. senator, and the New York Times is extraordinarily influential; for Cotton to proffer what seemed like a Tiananmen-esque proposal was jarring. But Times staffers were suggesting that Cotton’s bad ideas seeing the light of day would have resulted in them becoming actual policy, not widespread revulsion — which makes even less sense when you think about who tends to read the New York Times, and whether they’re frequently persuaded by Tom Cotton logic.
Still, the Cotton affair resulted in opinion editor James Bennet resigning, and is thus perhaps better read as a tale of staffers amassing newsroom power, and demonstrating their questionable news judgment in public to the many hungry rubberneckers jeering and cheering at the scrum.
You could construct a flimsy case that Bennet’s sense of the Overton window of political responses to domestic unrest could conceivably cause real-world bad policy, which could possibly result in harm for his colleagues, but that would require an awful lot of unlikely things to happen in quick succession; it’s much harder to construct a case like this when applied to what some random software engineer thinks about Ma’khia Bryant’s killing. But people saw what went down at The New York Times and realized that “words cause violence” can be profitably co-opted.
One possible explanation for why it’s so tantalizing for the woke to issue public statements taking a company stance on Supreme Court rulings and form affinity groups is that they took the oft-circulated Desmond Tutu quote at face value, one drilled into my mind from being painted on the steps of multiple $2-million-dollar brownstones in my Brooklyn neighborhood: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice,” the anti-apartheid activist wrote, “you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Perhaps many of these people really believe that it’s their daily mission to free the oppressed; that the way they’re going about that could never create new hierarchies of oppressor and oppressed.
Perhaps they’re really bored by the software products they were hired to create, stunned by the insignificance of that mission when compared with one of greater stakes — stakes raised by the summer protests following George Floyd’s killing, stakes raised by the Supreme Court’s decision to hollow out abortion rights, breaking from 50 years of precedent, stakes raised by the idea that this generation is at the vanguard of overthrowing the gender binary.
But a bunch of people understandably thought, when they were hired by tech companies to create email marketing software or single sign-on products or healthcare portals, that they were being hired to fulfill that mission, to improve that product, to have strong opinions about the best way to do that thing that they were being paid to manage.
And what incentive do they have to cause a stir? We saw what happened to James, to Antonio. The impenetrably stupid twin forces of wokeness and HR have congealed into something much more powerful than just the sum of their parts, something that will be impossibly hard to wrest ourselves free from.