The 2010s have been rough for the technology industry. We’ve watched social media platforms spiral into toxicity, harassment, fake news, election interference, hate, and genocide. In 2019, terrible judgment from one tech company or another seemed to hit the news every week, as large-scale problems appeared more normal and less avoidable. CEOs and their boards showed repeatedly that they don’t care about their employees much less their customers.
The most dangerous takeaway from this year is that inertia has won out: Boards and executive teams of all white men. Harassers that come back or have never left. Diversity and Inclusion reports with little to no improvement and less useful information shared. Underfunding and deprioritization of D&I efforts. Large tech companies that lack values and ethics or don’t apply them to platform/data/HR policies.
But that’s far from the whole story. We see a growing change and path forward that should encourage us to forge ahead.
People are going beyond telling their stories to advocating more and more concrete solutions — and the public and press are more responsive, embracing these individual activists, seeking accountability for the CEOs and executive teams. Google employees staged a walkout centered on five specific changes; other employees wanted the company to cancel a program because of human rights concerns. Employees called for an end to technology sales to ICE by companies including Amazon and Palantir; several at Microsoft’s GitHub quit in protest, and Google dropped its Project Maven military contract after nearly 4,000 employees petitioned for it, a dozen quit over it, and 90 academics signed a letter against it. Groups and individuals have called out and sought the removal of hate and harassment on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and reddit. Worker coalitions like Mijente, Tech Workers Coalition, activist groups like Color of Change, individual-run campaigns like Grab Your Wallet and Sleeping Giants and others are pointing the public and the press to problems, solutions, and accountability.
And it’s working. Because so many people spoke up, leaders finally had to listen and act. More CEOs were fired for misconduct in 2019 than any other year before. Employees successfully unionized at Spin Scooters and Google. Color of Change got Pinterest and other sites to remove racist content. And people are starting to understand that diversity and inclusion starts at the top; if the CEO is not involved in inclusion, as in any company initiative, it won’t happen.
In the past few years, it was hard to just speak up, get your story heard. Now those voices are demanding meaningful actions and real accountability.
In 2020, people will no longer accept empty promises and apologies; they want specific responses and real change. And they will persist against inertia — and the strong pushback from incumbents — until change happens.
That will mean increasing instability, uncertainty, and risks for tech CEOs for the next few years. My message for 2020 is to act from your values so you can make hard decisions and have uncomfortable conversations. Are you prepared?
Clarify and solidify your values: First, if your company does not have a clear set of corporate values and an expectation that all employees are accountable for their actions, your company is at risk for bad behavior. Does everyone know what will happen (and what to do) if a leader harasses someone? If an employee talks about “diversity hires”? If a team goes to a strip club? If a hiring manager only interviews white men for a role?
Strong values avoid wishy-washiness and whitewashing.
Don’t excuse and welcome back wrongdoers under the guise of their being perceived as good men or allies. Stop letting legal risk and short-term profits run your business. Don’t hide from hard conversations and uncomfortable truths. The long-term win is a strong, enduring employee base with clear goals and shared expectations.
Diversity and inclusion is about more than women. We’ve seen progress in the middle of the decade, but we’ve also seen backsliding. Many companies are taking #MeToo to mean focus on women, but that’s not the message of the movement. Diversity and inclusion means including everyone, using an intersectional lens. Research shows discrimination and bias across multiple identities can compound and is more complicated. When your company focuses on inclusion of women, other groups will disappear over time. The data show decreasing representation of Black and/or Brown employees at many companies (for example, at Google and Indiegogo who have more transparent reports) and know it happens at even more. If you only care about binary women, you send a message that exclusion is actually okay, and while women will be permitted in some areas, they might not reach the innermost circles. And you have shown everyone else through your actions that they don’t matter to you and won’t have a fair chance to succeed.
Diversity and inclusion is more than anti-harassment. Harassment is an easy area to focus on, because people now understand it is wrong, and most people don’t believe it belongs at work, but discrimination, bias and retaliation are also wrong and should be addressed proactively. Discrimination and bias exist in all areas of hiring, compensation, promotions, and opportunities. HR tools will incorporate bias from the engineers and designers who built them if they aren’t a diverse or inclusive group, which may exacerbate the problem. As CEO, you need to look at every interaction across the employee life cycle.
If you’re a CEO looking for specific solutions or broader policies, consider reading our Project Include recommendations. And congratulations on working to get ahead of inevitable change.