Your manager is taking the newly hired Federal Policy team leader to dinner at a Japanese Ramen restaurant. During the dinner, your manager points to a poster and asks “should Japanese people be offended because that poster states that ramen was invented in China?”
The new employee is Afro-Japanese.
The manager also comments on a Jewish colleague being “Seinfeld-Esque”. This dinner introductory meeting couldn’t get any more awkward.
The employee reported this uncomfortable dinner incident to Human Resources. Your HR department investigated the incident but concluded that the manager did not act inappropriately. Their exact words were “he was thinking out loud and was not directing his words to the new employee”.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a fictional story. This dinner meeting actually happened, and it happened to an employee at Pinterest.
After Pinterest posted a statement on their support of Black Lives Matter, Aerica Shimizu Banks exposed Pinterest through Twitter. She and another employee, Ifeoma Ozoma, experienced incidences of Pinterest’s toxic workplace. In May of this year, they had no choice but to quit.
Their experience consisted of discrimination in fighting for senior salary and terrifying retaliation. These women tried to change this work culture, but Pinterest’s high-level employers took certain matters personally, creating a toxic workplace.
Here is what the women said in the interview and how business leaders can take experiences to heart and learn from them.
“They wanted to pay me junior salary and have me do senior work.”
Pinterest is a tech company, thus they have seniority-level classifications. Higher “levels” have more responsibility and a higher salary. For example, an employee in a mid-senior level position at a big tech company can expect between $200,000-$400,000 in cash and stock. The highest seniority levels make $1 million, but largely in stock.
Yet, each company has its own qualifications for a particular “level”; Level 5 at Google is entirely different than Pinterest’s Level 5. While this is true, the biggest issue in the tech industry is the lack of women assigned in the seniority level.
According to a 2019 study by Glassdoor, men are more likely to begin a new job at a higher seniority level and are paid 20% more than a woman with similar education and experience. The National Women’s Law Center reported that Black women across the board are paid 40% less than white males and 20% less than white females.
Ozoma was hoping to change these discouraging statistics by working at Pinterest due to Pinterest’s “as long as you’re killing it, you will get promoted” mentality.
As an employee under the Social Impact Policy team, Ozoma’s work required her to fly around the world while being Pinterest’s sole representative at Congressional staff meetings. She led the company’s The Knot initiative that stopped promoting former Southern plantations as romantic wedding venues.
Despite her amazing achievements, she believed that they were paying her “junior salary” while doing “senior work”. She wanted her starting level reassessed. After 6 months, her manager (the same manager that made those derogatory remarks in the into) gave her a positive review and she got a pay increase.
All sounds good, right?
Unfortunately, Ozoma’s fight for equal pay led to job discrimination.
So much for the “as long as you’re killing it, you will get promoted” mentality.
Even though Ozoma got the pay raise, they didn’t increase her “job level”. She had to hire a lawyer at this point and five months later, a negotiation gave her another promotion and raise. But, she only moved up one rank and according to Pinterest’s job descriptions, she and her lawyer believed that the new promotion gave her no additional responsibilities.
She was already doing the work in this “new promotion”.
Pinterest told her that “Pay differs based on different levels of experience and responsibilities”. Therefore, the main requirement for the senior level position Ozoma wanted is 15 years of experience.
Here is the kicker. Nowhere is years of experience mentioned in Pinterest’s document describing each seniority level. It only mentions job duties.
Banks also experience job discrimination. In December 2019, after routinely doing work above her pay grade, Banks asked for a promotion. The same manager responded by reiterating, again, that it’s all about the number of years to get higher up.
“I believed I was told I pretty much didn’t qualify”.
In both these experiences, it’s clear that Pinterest’s senior-level employees took Banks and Ozoma’s fight for pay personally. They preyed on the company’s motto and bias, unfortunately, took over. These women received the most degrading result — discrimination.
As a leader, don’t let your own senior-employees do this. Everyone has a right to fight for equal pay, regardless of who they are.
Banks discovered that Pinterest wasn’t paying holiday pay to its lowest-paid contract workers. After receiving the go-ahead from Pinterest’s legal team and policy consultants, Banks drafted the policy of holiday pay to these workers.
Unfortunately, Banks received a horrific email from a senior exec in the legal department. She later learned that her policy embarrassed upper management and, according to 9 other Pinterest employees, Pinterest managers are ruthless when it comes to deflecting blame or taking credit.
After receiving the email, Banks fired the consultants she believed misled the senior executive. The senior executive found out and accused her of lying on the use of the consultants and hired a private investigator to interrogate her.
The icing on the cake on this horrible, humiliating experience was that surprise, the investigator found no evidence. Even so, Banks’s career responsibilities, conversations about promotions, and career path came to a screeching halt.
Banks filed California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing complaint.
If you thought the hiring a private investigator was the last straw on Pinterest’s intense retaliation, think again.
Doxxing is when an individual decides to share someone else’s personal information on the internet without that person’s consent. This is what happened to Ozoma. She received many death and rape threats. Random people would show up at her house.
Instead of taking her information off the internet right away, Pinterest’s CEO apologized by offering to send one of the company’s security officers for protection. Ozoma’s former colleagues at Google and Facebook took care of removing her personal information.
These two retaliation actions are a tall tale sign that, again, the employees are taking an incident personally. These women got brutally punished for no reason, while the Pinterest employees did not.
For these kinds of actions, if there is no punishment, they will happen again creating a toxic working environment for your employees. In the future, the outside world will associate your company as the one who believed that allowing death threats to occur is okay instead of what the company is all about.
As a business leader, if your employees, especially women and people of color, experience discrimination on fighting for senior salary, as well as terrifying retaliation, then you are condoning the formation of a toxic workplace.
Recently, technology companies have been under fire. Take Facebook for example. More and more businesses are removing their advertisement on the platform due to their controversial hate speech moderation.
Yet, businesses and start-ups know that social media marketing is a necessity. It’s a double edge sword, which sucks. Hopefully, the media attention can promote the change Pinterest desperately needs. A Pinterest spokesperson told the Business Insider that
“we never want anyone to feel the way Ifeoma and Aerica did while they were working at Pinterest. We’re committed to immediately taking the actions that we’ve outlined to our employees and we are actively pursuing this work”.
Ozoma and Banks hope that they take this statement seriously.
The CEO, Ben Silbermann, sent a letter to the employees admitting the embarrassment that part of their culture is broken and how he “didn’t understand the depth of the hardship and hurt many of our team members have experienced”.
Silbermann has also promised a full investigation into the complaints, as well as advocating for diversity hiring as part of all the managers’ goals.
As stated in the beginning, take Banks and Ozoma’s experience to heart and learn from them. You as a leader have the power to make a difference by changing the toxicity of the workplace in your company. Keep this quote in mind for when you do.
“By taking things personally, you set yourself up to suffer. The impact on you and the ripple effects on those around you are unhealthy” — Suzanne Mayo Frindt.