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"We can't build successful products that people will find relevant and useful if we don't understand who those people are and what is relevant to them, what is useful to them," says Maxine Williams, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Facebook.

Photo: Courtesy of Facebook
Maxine Williams, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Facebook
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How a pandemic changed the way Facebook takes care of employees

"If you are black and brown in America, even if you work at Facebook, you are more impacted by COVID-19 than many other people in many other groups."

Diversity and inclusion, or D&I, has never been tech's strong suit. But heading into 2020, many in tech promised to get serious: A Glassdoor report predicted that D&I would emerge as a top priority for companies this year. That was before the pandemic. Now it seems more at risk than ever.

"If people think it's just nice to have, then in times where you can't afford nice to have, you let it go," Maxine Williams, chief diversity and inclusion officer at Facebook, told Protocol.

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Facebook is one of the companies that had big D&I plans for 2020. Its 2019 diversity report revealed minimal progress — women make up 36.9% of Facebook's workplace, and black and Hispanic employees make up just 9% combined. Both percentages increased by only 0.6% over the year prior. Going forward, Facebook set itself an ambitious goal to achieve 50% diversity (including women, people who are black, Hispanic, Native American, Pacific Islanders, people with two or more ethnicities, people with disabilities and veterans) in its workforce by 2024.

Even as coronavirus has shifted business priorities everywhere, Facebook is keeping its commitment to diversity. Williams described Facebook as "very data-driven," and said she's usually focused on hiring percentages and inclusion metrics. But more recently, Facebook is turning inward, with an approach that's more emotional than numerical. In an interview, Williams told Protocol that Facebook has made several internal changes to support its employees in response to the coronavirus. They could affect the company's work life for a long time.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

What's it like trying to be a diversity leader remotely and trying to respond to the many different kinds of experiences people are going through now?

It has actually forced me and our team to "walk our walk" more. You have to be very deliberate about being inclusive when separated in the way we are.

I'm in the middle of doing check-ins with every single Facebook employee group across the world, starting with our Asia Pacific Islander group. We saw the surge in xenophobia that came out initially, and has continued, against people who look Asian. Working with that group, standing up for that group, giving space to the group. It's been a time that has made us be honest about what we should have been doing all along, and walk that walk more deliberately, more strongly.

What have you learned from that "more deliberate" mindset?

When people feel vulnerable, they don't need you to solve the problem for them, but they need to know that you are there for them if they need it. One could say: Having all these talks, what is it really doing? When I say we do safety checks, it's literally check-ins like, "OK, how are you today?" Truthfully, yeah, having a talk with somebody doesn't give them physical security when they walk out their door, if what they're afraid of is that they'll be spat upon because of what they look like. But it does help them with psychological safety. They know that if they need us, we are there, and that matters a lot.

But there have also been actions taken as a result of what we learn from employees, particularly on the mental health side where people have expressed needs.

We made the decision to remove all performance ratings. That is a huge thing for our company. We're a very performance-driven company. We recognized early on that the levels of anxiety and disruption caused in people's lives would not create an environment of psychological safety for people to operate in. We didn't want people to be concerned about what was going to happen with their tenure, their bonus or their job security, given how they might end up performing in this period because of COVID-19.

That was an action to address the anxiety, the uncertainty and the conditions we were dealing with now, which we'd never done in the company's history.

Is that changing Facebook's culture?

The long-lasting effects are too soon to say. Definitely people are saying they feel more included than they have before. But at the same time, if you were a new hire, no. You have to try to connect with a set of people who never met you. And we have committed to hiring 10,000 new people this year.

We have canceled all large gatherings until June 2021. So how do we connect people? In the D&I space and implementation, when you're building a community, it's quite natural to sort of think: OK, I'll have an event. Right? There were always people in the event space who would have been excluded. If you're flying everybody to one location, it's great for the people who can attend. But for the people who have a whole situation where they couldn't fly out, what was it like for them knowing people were meeting somewhere?

It's new challenges, which I think will force us to be more innovative and in many ways more inclusive.

Coronavirus is disproportionately affecting people of color. How is that guiding Facebook's response?

We've done a big initiative around helping small and medium businesses because we know that those businesses will be most severely impacted. Within that, we have in the U.S. designated 50% of that money for businesses owned by women or businesses owned by ethnic minorities, because we know they are going to be particularly impacted.

Similarly, if we think about internal issues, once we recognized that we couldn't have people in the office, we made the assumption that there were going to be a lot of people who don't have the equipment or the setup to be able to perform in a productive way from home. So, we gave [$1,000] stipends to every employee, and every employee benefited. But we were really thinking about the ones who would be most negatively impacted by this move.

Social isolation is a big problem for women and POC in the tech industry. How is that being addressed at Facebook?

Normally, that is the reason that we invest so heavily in communities at work. We recognize that if you are "the lonely only" on your team, it is helpful for you to have somewhere, some space, some pocket where you feel part of a bigger community. That's why we have all these affinity groups. They bring immense value and a sense of togetherness that gets us away from the loneliness we feel.

I have been thinking about how [remote work] is affecting things for a couple of reasons. This is pure speculation because it is so early. But you know, in people's home communities, they are often not in that same minority position.

Now, people might be working in the communities where they feel comfortable, where they feel safe, where they're not in the minority — I'm interested to see; again, I don't have the answer — but how does that play then?

Does that make you feel more or less connected? Does it make you feel stronger or weaker? Where does that value of an affinity group come then, when maybe you can get some of it somewhere else?

What does success in D&I look like?

There are ways we try to measure what it is. Are they perfect? Probably not. But I would say there are two big buckets of what success looks like. One is more: Is there more diversity in your workforce? Is your representation of diverse people growing? That is of course a combination of hiring and retention.

The other is inclusion metrics. We have a lot of data in that and we do both qualitative and quantitative. We are constantly doing focus groups. We're looking at metrics from employee sentiment surveys as well.

What was the thought process behind setting Facebook's "50% in five years" diversity goal?

We had come to a point where we had been trying different strategies. Like I said, we are very data-driven. After a few years of A/B testing, we felt that we had come to a good enough place on knowing ourselves and what works in our environment, that we should level-up our accountability. We have a whole ecosystem of strategies. This was one additional strategy to motivate us to do better, quicker.

People across the company knew the tactics we were asking them to adopt. Having a top goal, we felt could give a boost to motivate people to execute on the tactics.

How is coronavirus affecting those diversity goals?

Too early to tell. If you are black and brown in America, even if you work at Facebook, you are more impacted by COVID-19 than many other people in many other groups because it's your people who are getting more sick, who are dying more, who are losing their jobs more, or losing their businesses. I don't know yet how all of that will impact our ability to get to those goals.

This is going to impact business for a while. I think we'll have to, once we have enough data collected — which we don't yet — sit down and review this and say: Are these goals reasonable, given this? But it's just too early right now to know.

Is it important to Facebook to have a workforce that reflects its user base?

Oh my gosh, yes. It's not important. It's imperative. Yes. We can't build successful products that people will find relevant and useful if we don't understand who those people are and what is relevant to them, what is useful to them. Our whole business is about connecting people. Cognitive diversity is our goal, and our way of achieving that is through D&I.

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