• On June 3, anonymous employees at LinkedIn made comments that colleagues described as “disturbing” and “racist” during the company’s global town hall meeting to discuss racial inequality and the killing of George Floyd, the Daily Beast reported.
  • LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky apologized in an email sent to employees for not being able to track and address the “appalling comments” in real time.
  • These events directly contrast conversations Business Insider had with Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s diversity head, prior to the death of Floyd. 
  • In an interview with Business Insider, Durruthy said that “there’s no room for people attacking each other, and I think it’s an important message for leaders to be responsible.”
  • Companies need to be thoughtful about how they respond to any crisis, because employees are paying attention, experts said.
  • Click here for more BI Prime stories.

A recent LinkedIn employee townhall that went awry shows how corporate America is still struggling to have proactive discussions about race in the workplace.

LinkedIn’s newly appointed CEO Ryan Roslansky held a video chat with workers on June 3 to discuss the death of George Floyd and racial inequality in America. Several anonymous commenters on the chat denounced diversity hiring, spoke against promoting minorities to leadership roles, and tried to redirect focus from police brutality to black-on-black crime, the Daily Beast reported. This marked Roslansky’s third full day on the job.

Employees across the US are calling for corporate leaders to take strong stands against racial injustice, and this is undoubtedly something Roslansky will have to grapple with in the wake of the town hall. LinkedIn is now tasked with creating a more inclusive company culture for black and non-white employees, many of whom said the anonymous commenters made them feel uncomfortable, according to leaked comments published by the Daily Beast. 

But the news from the townhall paints a starkly different picture of the firm’s company culture compared to what Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s vice president of global diversity, inclusion, and belonging, previously told Business Insider. Durruthy said the company is working to address xenophobia and racism in the workplace, but there may be more work that needs to be done.

Employees said they were “shocked” by the racist comments 

During LinkedIn’s town hall, employees made several controversial comments about the company’s plan to address systemic racism at work, the Daily Beast reported. 

“As a non-minority, all this talk makes me feel like I am supposed to feel guilty of my skin color,” one commenter wrote during the company’s town hall. “I feel like I should let someone less qualified fill my position. Is that ok? It appears that I am a prisoner of my birth. This is not what Martin Luther King Jr. would have wanted for anyone.”

“I believe giving any racial group privilege over others in a zero sum game would not get any support by others. Any thoughts on hurting others while giving privileges with the rosy name called diversity? George’s killers need to be tried according to law. But how can hiring more minorities into manager roles and C-suite positions address cop racism? I thought hiring at LinkedIn is based on merit alone,” another anonymous employee commented. 

In response, other workers voiced concerns for their safety at the company and others said they were “shocked” by the racist remarks. 

“I do not feel safe working at this company in a place where I was already uncomfortable with the treatment I’ve received on my OWN team since I started,” an employee wrote. “This is so sad.”

“There are some extremely offensive comments here that go completely against the spirit of what this is intended for,” another commenter added. “I am COMPLETELY shocked by some of these racist comments from my fellow employees. I am thoroughly disgusted!”

The author of this post, Weng Cheong, previously worked at LinkedIn as an editorial fellow in 2019. Maxwell Tani, the author of the article published by the Daily Beast, previously worked at Business Insider.

LinkedIn’s CEO apologized after the “appalling comments” at the town hall

On June 4, Roslansky issued an apology to employees. He sent an email addressing “a small number of offensive comments” that “reinforced the very hard work we still have to do.” And he apologized for not being able to track and address the “appalling comments” in real time. 

“I am very sorry and that won’t happen again,” he wrote in the email. “Also, we offered the ability to ask questions anonymously with the intention of creating a safe space for all. Unfortunately, that made it possible to add offensive comments without accountability… I said it in the company group yesterday, and I will say it again, we are not and will not be a company or platform where racism or hateful speech is allowed.”

Although Roslansky took the helm as CEO on June 1, he is not new to LinkedIn. He worked at the company for 11 years as the senior vice president of products and user experience before being selected as CEO, according to his LinkedIn profile

Roslansky replaced Jeff Weiner, who had been rated as one of the most popular CEOs in the US based on employee satisfaction by Glassdoor. Weiner had a 97% approval rating, according to the Glassdoor report.

Roslansky may have big shoes to fill, and he acknowledged that LinkedIn still has “a lot of work to do to educate ourselves and our colleagues on how to create a culture that is truly anti-racist.”

Although Roslansky apologized for the comments during the town hall, communicating clear solutions to address inequality is now more important than ever. Leaders should show that addressing racial injustices will be a continual conversation from now on, and the company will develop an action plan for employees who experience racial bias at work. 

Accountability is also important. LinkedIn’s permission for anonymous commenting at the town hall opened doors for people to share their opinions without accountability, Roslansky wrote in his email to employees. The CEO stressed in the email that anonymous comment will not be permitted in future company-wide meetings. 

LinkedIn has faced difficulties building a diverse workforce

Durruthy previously told Business Insider that the company is addressing xenophobia and mental health issues at work. (Earlier this year, Business Insider named Durruthy one of the 10 diversity leaders fighting inequality in corporate America.)

One day before the publication of the Daily Beast’s article, Durruthy sent us an exclusive comment addressing the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and racial inequality in the US. The company declined to provide additional comment on the town hall beyond Roslansky’s email. 

“The decision to address this moment may be uncomfortable, but the discomfort should not stop us from speaking up during this critical time in our history,” Durruthy wrote in the statement. 

Despite LinkedIn’s efforts to diversify, nearly half of employees at the company are white. 

According to LinkedIn’s 2019 “Workforce Diversity Report,” about 48% of the company’s workforce is made up of white people, while only 4% are black. Exactly 1% of the company’s leaders are black. Of the company’s leaders, 61% of employees identify as white, 32% are Asian, 2.8% are Latinx, and 2.8% identify as “two or more.”

The number of women in leadership roles at the firm has increased by 56% over the past five years.

Durruthy told Business Insider that leaders must create a safe and trusted space for all employees.

“There is no room for xenophobia, and there’s no room for people attacking each other, and I think it’s an important message for leaders to be responsible,” she said.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Durruthy said the company has increased events with its nine employee resource groups. For example, the company’s Black Inclusion Group hosted a virtual mental health check-in and live discussion with Dr. Michael McRae, assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Health Promotion for Justice-Impacted Populations, on how coronavirus has impacted Black and Latinx communities. It’s unclear if the company’s plans have changed after the anonymous town hall.

“At a time like this, it’s a really great manifestation of how a company can maintain its culture, support, inclusion, and belonging not just by addressing the immediate situation, but also by addressing the circumstances that are provoked,” Durruthy said. “Our role is to be supportive of each other.”

On the hiring front, she said the company is steering away from employee referrals because it tends to bring in candidates who come from similar backgrounds as existing employees.

“It’s really easy to help our friends and help people who are like ourselves,” she said. “But what does it look like when you reach beyond the communities you’re connected to?”

Lack of diversity is an issue many companies will be forced to grapple with in the near future

LinkedIn isn’t the first company to be called out for its lack of diversity in the office.

In July 2019, current and former black employees at Adidas’ US headquarters in Portland described a workplace culture that lacked diversity and made many workers feel marginalized, the New York Times reported. The company responded by saying it would expand its diversity and inclusion team in the US. Google was criticized by employees after it made cost cuts to its diversity and inclusion programs, NBC News reported.

Today, executives from companies including Apple, Bain, and Target are speaking out about racism and diversity. For example, medical-device-manufacturing firm Boston Scientific released an open letter on May 28 encouraging black employees to share their experiences, creating tangible company action plans, and reiterating its commitment to getting rid of racism at work. 

PR veteran LaToya Evans, who has worked with major brands like Cisco and IBM, previously told Business Insider that companies need to be thoughtful about how they respond to a crisis, because employees are paying attention. 

“Whether it’s the global COVID-19 pandemic or the murder of George Floyd, companies need to understand that people — including their employees, consumers, shareholders, and stakeholders — are watching their actions carefully during this time,” she said.

Silence isn’t an option, she said, because it can not only alienate employees but also damage your business. She also advised leaders to acknowledge Floyd’s death and the protests as an ongoing issue.

“Companies should be asking themselves, ‘What can I do to truly make inclusion part of my company’s fabric and DNA?'” she added. 

But it doesn’t end with a memo. Executives need to take meaningful actions and potentially alter hiring processes if they want to create more inclusive office cultures. 

Durruthy shared a similar message. Rather than seeing diversity as something that has to be fixed, leaders should approach it as a growth driver, she said. 

“While we know there is much work to be done, it’s important for companies to accept the long road ahead and reinforce the commitment to the progress and advancement of underserved communities,” she told Business Insider. “It is not enough to dislike racism, but together, we must work toward equity and anti-racism.”

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