FACEBOOK

Rhett Lindsey, 32, founder and CEO of Siimee, a new app designed to eliminate bias in recruitment. —Philip Cheung/The Washington Post

Rhett Lindsey was so eager to work at Facebook, he applied for a job there three times. When he finally got the offer to become a recruiter for highly paid engineers, he says he jumped at the chance to help the social network push for greater employee diversity in its ranks.

Eight months later, in August 2020, Lindsey attended a virtual meeting to discuss the company’s goal of hiring more Black engineers. In the meeting, a White manager played a Drake song in the background whose chorus repeats the phrase “Where the [n-word]s be at?,” five times, according to videos of the incident reviewed by The Washington Post.

Lindsey asked in the chat system why they were playing the song, then said he was “really disappointed,” according to the video.

“It shows you the insensitivity and the lack of awareness,” Lindsey said. A manager subsequently apologized, according to the video.

The country was in the midst of a historic reckoning over racial justice, and Facebook had just set an ambitious hiring goal of 30% more people of color in leadership by 2025.

But Lindsey and other current and former Black employees involved in hiring — as well as potential recruits who filed a claim with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last summer — describe a problematic system that makes it difficult to achieve that and other diversity goals. They say the company has adapted metrics that prompt recruiters to go through the motions without actually delivering talent. Even the diverse candidates who are brought in can be rejected over vague terms such as “cultural fit.” They also say that the problem goes deeper than hiring and that many employees of color feel alienated by the social network’s culture.

Lindsey quit the company in November, just 11 months after he started, and has since founded a start-up.

Facebook is facing a federal investigation by the EEOC that launched last summer into allegations of bias in hiring, promotion and pay, according to the complaint. That case has since been expanded into a systemic probe by the EEOC, a special designation which means that the federal agency is examining whether company practices may be contributing to widespread discrimination and is assessing the potential to bring a broader lawsuit representing an entire class of workers, according to the lawyers representing the complainants.

In the EEOC complaint, three Black job applicants say they met all the advertised job qualifications but were rejected after going through the interview process. They say they were told by Facebook interviewers that the company was looking for people who would fit in culturally.

Culture fit is an ill-defined term for whether a candidate is a good match for a company’s internal culture.

A Facebook operations manager who is identified in the complaint, Oscar Veneszee Jr., who is Black and still works at Facebook, said in an interview that he had submitted more than half a dozen qualified applicants who were underrepresented minorities for jobs at Facebook, but that all were rejected and he suspected it was because they failed the cultural fit test.

“When I was interviewing at Facebook, the thing I was told constantly was that I needed to be a culture fit, and when I tried to recruit people, I knew I needed find people who were a culture fit,” he said. “But unfortunately not many people I knew could pass that challenge because the culture here does not reflect the culture of Black people.”

Racial issues at Facebook have been particularly acute over the last year because of the decision by CEO Mark Zuckerberg to give wide latitude to racially divisive comments by President Donald Trump during last summers’ protests, and because of the company’s role in providing a platform for extremist groups that espouse white supremacist ideas. The decision to leave up Trump’s comment was of particular concern to workers of color, some of whom met personally with senior leaders to protest the decision while others have left the company. Facebook software engineer Ashok Chandwaney quit publicly in the fall, citing unease with the social media giant’s role in fueling hate.

Zuckerberg’s decision “created such lack of psychological safety on all kinds of levels, and Black employees in particular didn’t know how to truly process that,” said a former Black executive who cited the decision as one of her reasons for resigning.

Facebook is one of the several Silicon Valley companies, including Google and Microsoft, to announce ambitious diversity targets in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man killed while in police custody. But years of annual tech companies’ diversity reports show only incremental progress on increasing the ratio of Black and Latino employees, and high attrition rates among Black women, supported by recent accounts of racial bias and inequities in pay and promotion from Black women at Google, Pinterest and Amazon.

Google’s leadership is more than 95% White or Asian and 73% male, and Facebook’s is more than 87% White or Asian and 66% male, according to the companies’ 2020 diversity reports.

The independent civil rights auditors Facebook hired to scrutinize its record last summer found attrition was of concern to employees of color and to civil rights advocates, and noted a “disconnect” between the experiences described by employees of color and the company’s myriad diversity and inclusion initiatives.

The auditors noted that “civil rights leaders have characterized the current numbers for Hispanic and African American staff as abysmal across every category.”

Facebook has pledged that 50% of its workforce will be made up of underrepresented people by 2024 — defined as underrepresented minorities and women — but its progress so far has been modest.

When Lindsey started sourcing candidates for Facebook, he said he and other recruiters used a custom-built software dashboard called FBR, or Facebook Recruiting platform, where recruiters recorded their outreach to candidates and created profiles of them. Their manager had weekly meetings with them to gauge their progress.

If recruiters didn’t hit targets of making contact or starting the recruiting process with a specific number of people of each race and gender each week, they were told specifically that executives, namely Zuckerberg, were unhappy with them, Lindsey said.

Managers primarily instructed recruiters to infer the race and gender of candidates by scouring the Internet, particularly Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, he said.

They then formalized those guesses and inputted them into a system that any person who interviewed the candidate could see, according to Lindsey and to a screenshot of the system viewed by The Post. The screenshot showed nine affirmative action, or AA, categories with a bubble next to them for check marks, that are part of a candidate’s profile for a job at Facebook. Seven of the categories were race-based, including Black and Hispanic, and there were two other categories for women and veterans. He said the system was still being used when he left.

The pressure sometimes led the recruiters to make problematic assumptions, Lindsey said, based on his conversations with other employees, discussions at their team meetings and his own experience.

Tech recruiters say it’s a common, if unspoken, practice in Silicon Valley to guess the race and gender of applicants. It’s a less-than-ideal outcome of companies trying to reduce the risk of violating civil rights laws, which effectively prevent employers from requiring candidates to disclose their race outright.

Lindsey’s description of that practice within Facebook was troubling, Sanchez said, because it took that guesswork to another level by potentially exposing it to everyone involved in the hiring process.

Stone said the company does not instruct recruiters to visually inspect the race of prospective candidates and instead asks them to use objective criteria, such as membership in a professional society for a certain ethnicity or whether a person went to a historically black school.

According to Lindsey, the pressure resulted in some cases in recruiters feeling the need to duplicate candidate profiles — manipulating the profile slightly so the same candidate would count twice, or tagging White people as people of color — in the tracking system to inflate their numbers. He said he never did so.

That system then fed into an interview and selection process that was itself not inclusive, Lindsey said. The educational backgrounds of candidates of color, who more frequently came from less prestigious universities, coding boot camps or HBCUs, were often dubbed less of a “cultural fit” in HR meetings than other candidates, Lindsey said.

Lindsey says his time at Facebook led him to co-found his start-up, Siimee, focused on helping job candidates connect with recruiters on an app that focuses on prioritizing inclusivity and mitigating bias. It lets people create profiles where they can openly discuss their identities and ambitions and show those to potential employers.

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