LinkedIn's tone has long reflected corporate America: staid, monolithic, white. Now Black users are speaking up — and saying the site is limiting their voice. (Richard A. Chance © 2020 The New York Times) Photograph:( The New York Times )
It’s an unexpected development for what has long been the most polite and perhaps the dullest of the major social networks
WASHINGTON — One day in September, Elizabeth Leiba opened the LinkedIn app and saw a post by Aaisha Joseph, a diversity consultant with nearly 16,000 followers on the platform.
“Ima need #companies to stop sending their dedicated House Negros to ‘deal with the Blacks’ they deem out of control,” read the item. “It’s really not a good look — it’s actually a very #whitesupremacist and #racist one.”
The post was exactly the sort of thing Leiba, an instructional design manager at City College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was looking for. These days, when she pulls out her phone in search of boisterous conversation, hot takes and the latest tea, she finds herself tapping LinkedIn, which since the killing of George Floyd has become a thriving forum for Black expression.
“I go onto Twitter and I get bored,” Leiba, 46, said. “Then I go right back to LinkedIn because it’s on fire. I don’t even have to go on any other social media now.”
It’s an unexpected development for what has long been the most polite and perhaps the dullest of the major social networks. LinkedIn was founded in 2003 as a place to network and post résumés — essentially, a directory of white-collar professionals. A few years ago, LinkedIn added a Facebook-like news feed that encouraged users to post links and updates, but it has never been a rollicking space. A team of editors helped enforce a mood best described as corporate.
“You talk on LinkedIn the same way you talk in the office,” Dan Roth, LinkedIn’s editor-in-chief, told The New York Times in August 2019. “There are certain boundaries around what is acceptable.”
Two staggering events have changed that. In early 2020, the pandemic hit, forcing millions to work from home and miss out on break-room chitchat — boosting LinkedIn as a place to vent. Then, the killing of Floyd in police custody in May put workers over the edge. Black grief went on display, uninhibited, at corporate America’s virtual water cooler.
“I was just 43 years tired,” said Future Cain, a social- and emotional-learning director at a middle and high school in Wisconsin. “I was using LinkedIn to post positive things and uplift people during the pandemic, and I decided I can’t sit here quietly anymore.”
As protesters took to the streets to demand police reform, Leiba and Cain were among those who discovered that LinkedIn was a place to speak to the executive class on something like their home turf. Black users have taken to the site to call out racial discrimination in the workplace and share their stories of alienation on the job.
Not that it’s all serious: Much of the posting is exuberant — full of memes, Black cultural references and linguistic panache. This summer, Leiba shared a video about code-switching, in which a Black employee transforms while greeting colleagues of color (“Oh, hey, Black queen!”) and a white one (empty-headed hiking talk). “I’ve watched it at least fifty eleven times,” Leiba wrote.
These are the kinds of conversations, and ways of speaking, that cubicle-dwelling Black workers have typically held out of earshot of their white colleagues. As unusually charismatic posts appeared in my own feed this summer, it seemed clear that Black LinkedIn was emerging as a professional cousin to Black Twitter — the unapologetically Black digital space where people expose long-ignored injustices and pump their experience into the mainstream.
What’s less clear is how comfortable LinkedIn is with the development, having placed its content moderators in the incendiary position of determining what manner of race-related speech is appropriate for its virtual workplace of 706 million users.
Black users who post in forceful tones, and some of their allies, say they feel LinkedIn has silenced them — erasing their posts and even freezing their accounts for violating vague rules of decorum.
For example, the “House Negros” post that Joseph wrote in September vanished from the platform. Joseph, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, was able to see it when she viewed her own page, but no other users could — a practice known as shadow banning. (Later, LinkedIn added an unsigned note in red, saying the post had been removed for violating the site’s Professional Community Policies, which instruct users to “be civil and respectful in every single interaction.”) Joseph began a new item: “Let me say it louder since LinkedIn wanted to delete my post the first time.” The company removed that post, too, saying it included “harassment, defamation or disparagement of others.”
Theresa M. Robinson, a corporate training consultant in Houston, said LinkedIn had deleted a post she wrote about racism, then reinstated it after she complained. She said she never received an explanation. Two others, Cain and Madison Butler, who works in Austin, Texas, also said LinkedIn had restricted their commentary on race.
In the absence of clear communication from the company, these users are left guessing as to what the rules are — and feeling that the company is not just policing their tone but stifling their opportunity to force change in corporate America.
Nicole Leverich, a LinkedIn spokeswoman, wrote in an email: “We are not censoring content and have not made any changes to our algorithm to reduce the distribution of content about these important topics.” She added in an interview that LinkedIn was introducing a new process for notifying users when their posts were flagged for violating platform rules, and that some people hadn’t been phased in by the end of September.
The company acknowledged that it had erred in taking action against some users and restored content that was found, on appeal, not to violate its policies.
“If we make a mistake, we will own it,” said Paul Rockwell, head of LinkedIn’s trust and safety division. “We will be very clear — this is a learning opportunity for us. We’re going to continue to use that in our journey to get better and better. And we do want to nail this thing.”
Hard conversations about race
Few people think LinkedIn should look anything like the wilds of Reddit or Twitter, which have a certain amount of anonymity and even anarchy built into their DNA. Much of LinkedIn’s value — Microsoft acquired it in 2016 for $26 billion — is tied to its sense of professionalism and respectful conduct. Users must share their real names and credentials, and it’s understood that their current or prospective employers might well scan anything they post.
For Black people in the corporate realm, however, words like “professional” and “respectful” are red flags. Like the natural Black hairstyles that were once widely considered unprofessional, certain behaviors — being too Black, speaking too Black or talking too much about Black topics — have long limited advancement in companies with white cultures.
That’s what has changed on LinkedIn in the last few months. Black people are being, to use a technical term, Blackity-Black Black on LinkedIn. Much of the behavior is not so different from Black Twitter; users pepper their posts with clap emojis to emphasize every syllable, and GIFs celebrate cultural touchstones like Issa Rae’s “Insecure” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” The difference is that it is all happening on a social network that mirrors the business world — a place that is predominantly white.
“It is liberating. It feels like it’s about time,” Joseph said. “We are taking back what was stolen from us — and that’s our voice. I’m talking specifically to my people in the way that we talk to each other in other spaces, and without regard for any outside audience. No longer having to stifle that has been freeing.”
Part of what Black LinkedIn has done is brought together Black professionals to be their authentic selves in front of their white colleagues. For many, it has been an existential relief, and may provide a blueprint for how Black employees choose to conduct themselves once the physical workplace reopens.
“The days of hiding and masking who you are and dealing with the BS — I just can’t even go back to that,” said Jessica Pharm, 33, who works in human resources at a manufacturing firm near Milwaukee. “Any company that gets me next is getting the full-on Jessica.”
Leiba posted on Sept. 17: “It means code-switching is OUT. It means the AFRO is coming at you on a daily basis. It means you’re getting these bangle earrings and the poppin’ lip gloss.”
Inevitably, not everyone accepts this kind of exuberance. Posts about Black Lives Matter and racial justice often attract the same kind of dismissive, and sometimes bigoted, responses found on other platforms: rejoinders that “all lives matter” or claims about Black-on-Black crime. But because the activity takes place on LinkedIn, these comments typically come with the user’s headshot, place of employment and entire work history attached.
“You start to see these people who are absolutely not OK with this focus on Blackness popping up in commentary, with their name and their company fully on display, giving zero deference to the moment,” said John Graham Jr., 39, a digital marketer and strategist at a California biotechnology company. “I find it telling that people would put their careers in jeopardy and their unconscious biases on full display.”
LinkedIn has also struggled internally with how to respond to the Black Lives Matter movement. In June, chief executive Ryan Roslansky publicly apologized for “appalling” racial comments some employees had made at a companywide staff meeting.
Rosanna Durruthy, LinkedIn’s head of diversity, inclusion and belonging, said in an interview that the company was engaging in hard conversations about race, both inside the company and out.
“We’re really beginning to focus very consistently on how we begin to address this externally” on the platform, she said.
‘Break down the status quo’
One of the most vociferous presences on Black LinkedIn is Butler, a human resources consultant and vice president at a startup. She has posted on LinkedIn since 2018 and with increasing frequency and fervor this year. The potential to speak truth to capital, she said, makes the resulting rounds of death threats worth it.
“There is something to be said about the access LinkedIn gives you to powerful CEOs and VCs to help change their outlook and how they support Black employees and founders,” said Butler, 29, referring to venture capitalists. “The conversation that has to happen in order to break down the status quo in corporate America isn’t happening on Instagram.”
Butler, who has about 40,000 followers, posts on LinkedIn daily. Her style is to be prescriptive, assail corporate norms and call out whitesplainers and trolls; she tends to close each missive with the hashtags #isaidwhatisaid, #thatsthetea and #blackgirlmagic. One recent post scolded companies that make a show of cheering on the Black Lives Matter movement but haven’t done right by their employees.
“Do the Black people in your organization feel like they matter, or do they feel like the Black stock photos you used to enhance your ‘wokeness’ footprint in the marketplace. If you can’t make the Black lives under your own roof matter, do not use Black Lives Matter as a brand strategy,” Butler wrote recently. “Don’t talk about it, be about it. Period.”
Other stars of Black LinkedIn target specific companies. Joseph, for example, has recently called out Wells Fargo, DoorDash, Microsoft and Google.
There has also been no shortage of criticism of LinkedIn itself. Users are holding the company to a standard it set for itself in June, when Melissa Selcher, chief marketing and communications officer, wrote an open letter on the platform.
“We have a responsibility to use our platform and resources to intentionally address the systemic barriers to economic opportunity,” she wrote. “We also believe we play a critical role in amplifying Black voices.”
Also in June, with Black Lives Matter protests spreading across the country, LinkedIn highlighted “Black Voices to Follow and Amplify,” a curated list of chief executives, media personalities and other influencers, including the Rev. Bernice King and Karamo Brown from the Netflix show “Queer Eye.” For the most part, members of the list post content that is general, motivational and safe.
Joseph and others took to LinkedIn to say the group contained too many establishment names and not enough activists. “Where are the Tamika Mallorys of LinkedIn on that list?” Joseph wrote, referring to a co-founder of the 2017 Women’s March.
“Black voices aren’t just corporate C-Suite ones,” wrote Patricia S. Gatlin, a talent sourcing specialist in Las Vegas.
“All Black voices need to be heard in this moment,” added Scott Taylor, a recruiter in Los Angeles. “Not just the ones your team of analysts think we should hear from.”
Leverich, the LinkedIn spokeswoman, said by email: “We use a number of factors in our selection, including members who have self-identified as Black, people from a variety of industries and with an interesting perspective to share. We’re constantly adding new voices and sorting through requests to join this program.”
In September, LinkedIn used its own company page to pose a question to its 13 million followers: “What are the best ways to normalize having conversations about race and anti-racism in the workplace? #ConversationsForChange”
The responses quickly turned sour. “LinkedIn, you can facilitate that objective by normalizing those conversations on your platform,” wrote Lenzy Ruffin, a communications strategist in Washington, D.C.
“The irony that you should post this!” wrote Abi Adamson, a diversity and inclusion consultant in London. “Kindly stop censoring Black content around racism. People like me have had our engagement go down astronomically when highlighting racism or how to be anti-racist. Help amplify our voices and stop silencing us.”
Sabrina McClimans, a graduate student in Seattle, asked the platform to “stop ‘accidentally’ disappearing the posts of Black women on your platform when they talk about race and anti-racism.”
Phil Molé, who works at a software company in Chicago, added: “I have seen cases in which individuals who harass Black women on this platform have maintained their accounts while those who speak out against racism and prejudice have had accounts suspended. It’s time for a thorough review of the way the issues are handled.”
LinkedIn did not respond to those comments. Philip Mix, a consultant in London, added to the thread after a day and a half, when there were 344 comments, saying he had gone through them “three times to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.” By his count, LinkedIn had replied to five users — four times to say “Thank you for sharing” and once with “Nicely put.”
Mix concluded: “Not sure if I’m more shocked or depressed by this miserably inadequate show from LinkedIn.”