SAN FRANCISCO — One by one, they left. Some quit. Others were fired. All were Black.The 15 people worked at Coinbase, the most valuable U.S. cryptocurrency start-up, where they represented roughly three-quarters of the Black employees at the 600-person company. Before leaving in late 2018 and early 2019, at least 11 of them informed the human resources department or their managers about what they said was racist or discriminatory treatment, five people with knowledge of the situation said.One of the employees was Alysa Butler, 25, who worked in recruiting. During her time at Coinbase, she said, she told her manager several times about …
In Rochester, Mich., Oakland University is preparing to hand out wearable devices to students that log skin temperature once a minute — or more than 1,400 times per day — in the hopes of pinpointing early signs of the coronavirus.
In Plano, Texas, employees at the headquarters of Rent-A-Center recently started wearing proximity detectors that log their close contacts with one another and can be used to alert them to possible virus exposure.
And in Knoxville, students on the University of Tennessee football team tuck proximity trackers under their shoulder pads during games — allowing the team’s medical director to trace which players may have spent more than 15 minutes near a teammate or an opposing player.
The powerful new surveillance systems, wearable devices that continuously monitor users, are the latest high-tech gadgets to emerge in the battle to hinder the coronavirus. Some sports leagues, factories and nursing homes have already deployed them. Resorts are rushing to adopt them. A few schools are preparing to try them. And the conference industry is eyeing them as a potential tool to help reopen convention centers.
“Everyone is in the early stages of this,” said Laura Becker, a research manager focusing on employee experience at the International Data Corporation, a market research firm. “If it works, the market could be huge because everyone wants to get back to some sense of normalcy.”
Companies and industry analysts say the wearable trackers fill an important gap in pandemic safety. Many employers and colleges have adopted virus screening tools like symptom-checking apps and temperature-scanning cameras. But they are not designed to catch the estimated 40 percent of people with Covid-19 infections who may never develop symptoms like fevers.
Some offices have also adopted smartphone virus-tracing apps that detect users’ proximity. But the new wearable trackers serve a different audience: workplaces like factories where workers cannot bring their phones, or sports teams whose athletes spend time close together.
This spring, when coronavirus infections began to spike, many professional football and basketball teams in the United States were already using sports performance monitoring technology from Kinexon, a company in Munich whose wearable sensors track data like an athlete’s speed and distance. The company quickly adapted its devices for the pandemic, introducing SafeZone, a system that logs close contacts between players or coaches and emits a warning light if they get within six feet. The National Football League began requiring players, coaches and staff to wear the trackers in September.
The data has helped trace the contacts of about 140 N.F.L. players and personnel who have tested positive since September, including an outbreak among the Tennessee Titans, said Dr. Thom Mayer, the medical director of the N.F.L. Players Association. The system is particularly helpful in ruling out people who spent less than 15 minutes near infected colleagues, he added.
College football teams in the Southeastern Conference also use Kinexon trackers. Dr. Chris Klenck, the head team physician at the University of Tennessee, said the proximity data helped teams understand when the athletes spent more than 15 minutes close together. They discovered it was rarely on the field during games, but often on the sideline.
“We’re able to tabulate that data, and from that information we can help identify people who are close contacts to someone who’s positive,” Dr. Klenck said.
Civil rights and privacy experts warn that the spread of such wearable continuous-monitoring devices could lead to new forms of surveillance that outlast the pandemic — ushering into the real world the same kind of extensive tracking that companies like Facebook and Google have instituted online. They also caution that some wearable sensors could enable employers, colleges or law enforcement agencies to reconstruct people’s locations or social networks, chilling their ability to meet and speak freely. And they say these data-mining risks could disproportionately affect certain workers or students, like undocumented immigrants or political activists.
“It’s chilling that these invasive and unproven devices could become a condition for keeping our jobs, attending school or taking part in public life,” said Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit in Manhattan. “Even worse, there’s nothing to stop police or ICE from requiring schools and employers to hand over this data.”
Executives at Kinexon and other companies that market the wearable trackers said in recent interviews that they had thought deeply about the novel data-mining risks and had taken steps to mitigate them.
Devices from Microshare, a workplace analytics company that makes proximity detection sensors, use Bluetooth technology to detect and log people wearing the trackers who come into close contact with one another for more than 10 or 15 minutes. But the system does not continuously monitor users’ locations, said Ron Rock, the chief executive of Microshare. And it uses ID codes, not employees’ real names, to log close contacts.
Mr. Rock added that the system was designed for human resources managers or security officials at client companies to use to identify and alert employees who spent time near an infected person, not to map workers’ social connections.
GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, recently began working with Microshare to develop a virus-tracing system for its sites that make over-the-counter drugs. Budaja Lim, head of digital supply chain technology for Asia Pacific at the company’s consumer health care division, said he wanted to ensure maximum privacy for workers who would wear the proximity detection sensors.
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As a result, he said, the system silos the data it collects. It logs close contacts between workers using ID numbers, he said. And it separately records the ID numbers of workers who spent time in certain locations — like a packaging station in a warehouse — enabling the company to hyper-clean specific areas where an infected person may have spent time.
GlaxoSmithKline recently tested the system at a site in Malaysia and is rolling it out to other consumer health plants in Africa, Asia and Europe. The tracking data has also allowed the company to see where workers seem to be spending an unusual amount of time close together, like a security desk, and modify procedures to improve social distancing, Mr. Lim said.
“It was really designed to be a reactive type of solution” to trace workers with possible virus exposure, he said. “But it has actually become a really powerful tool to proactively manage and protect our employee safety.”
Oakland University, a public research university near Detroit, is at the forefront of schools and companies preparing to making the leap to the BioButton, a novel coin-size sensor attached to the skin 24/7 that uses algorithms to try to detect possible signs of Covid-19.
Whether such continuous surveillance of students, a young and largely healthy population, is beneficial is not yet known. Researchers are only in the early phases of studying whether wearable technology could help flag signs of the disease.
David A. Stone, vice president for research at Oakland University, said school officials had carefully vetted the BioButton and concluded it was a low-risk device that, added to measures like social distancing and mask wearing, might help hinder the spread of the virus. The technology will alert campus health services to students with possible virus symptoms, he said, but the school will not receive specific data like their temperature readings.
“In an ideal world, we would love to be able to wait until this is an F.D.A.-approved diagnostic,” Dr. Stone said. But, he added, “nothing about this pandemic has been in an ideal world.”
Dr. James Mault, chief executive of BioIntelliSense, the start-up behind the BioButton, said students with privacy concerns could ask to have their personal details stripped from the company’s records. He added that BioIntelliSense was preparing to conduct a large-scale study examining its system’s effectiveness for Covid-19.
Oakland had initially planned to require athletes and dorm residents to wear the BioButton. But the university reversed course this summer after nearly 2,500 students and staff members signed a petition objecting to the policy. The tracker will now be optional for students.
“A lot of colleges are doing masks and social distancing,” said Tyler Dixon, a senior at the school who started the petition, “but this seemed like one step too far.”
Rob Rhinehart, a co-founder of nutritional drink start-up Soylent, declared in a blog post last week that he was supporting Kanye West for president.
“I am so sick of politics,” Mr. Rhinehart wrote. “Politics are suddenly everywhere. I cannot avoid them.”
David Barrett, the chief executive of Expensify, a business software start-up, went in another direction. In an email to his company’s 10 million customers last week, he implored them to embrace politics by choosing the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.
“Anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy,” Mr. Barrett proclaimed.
With days to go before the election on Tuesday, Mr. Rhinehart and Mr. Barrett represent the twin poles of a start-up culture war that has openly erupted in Silicon Valley. Start-ups such as the cryptocurrency company Coinbase and the audio app Clubhouse have become embroiled in a debate over how much politics should be part of the workplace. And venture capitalists and other tech executives have weighed in on social media with their own views.
“I have never seen another instance like this in my career,” said Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and political consultant. “There’s no real separation anymore, in the current political climate, between politics and everything else. It has permeated absolutely everything.”
Silicon Valley tech workers have long been regarded as liberal but not politically overactive. After President Trump’s victory in 2016, however, workers at large tech companies such as Google and Amazon began agitating more on issues like the ethics of artificial intelligence, immigration and climate change.
Now many start-up workers, who have been sold on a mission of changing the world, expect their employers to support their social and political causes, entrepreneurs and investors said. This summer’s protests against police violence prompted many tech companies to re-examine their own issues with race. And the pressure to make political moves before the election has only intensified.
The shift has grown partly out of a realization that no tech platform is completely neutral, said Katie Jacobs Stanton, who invests in start-ups through her venture capital firm, Moxxie Ventures. Founders who build companies with millions of users “really have an obligation to have a point of view and make sure their products are being used for good,” Ms. Stanton said.
“It’s disingenuous and it’s also the luxury of the privileged to say, ‘We don’t have a point of view,’” she added.
But others said they feared becoming a lightning rod or inflaming tensions at a hypersensitive moment during the coronavirus pandemic. Some worried that their companies could be sued by employees who might say they were discriminated against because of their political beliefs. Others said any move could be attacked by those who found the actions inauthentic or not enough.
Keep up with Election 2020
Those tensions exploded in public last month when Brian Armstrong, the chief executive of Coinbase, penned a 2,000-word blog post to “clarify” his company’s culture. Mr. Armstrong wrote that he wanted Coinbase to generally avoid engaging with broader social issues and workplace conversations about politics. He said it was a way to minimize distraction and focus on the start-up’s mission of creating “an open financial system for the world.”
Two months earlier, dozens of Coinbase employees had staged a walkout after executives were slow to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters and minority employees, several workers said. In his post, Mr. Armstrong said employees who disagreed with his “no politics” stance could leave.
His position immediately created waves across Silicon Valley. Some praised the move, with one Coinbase investor comparing Mr. Armstrong to Michael “Jordan in his prime.” Others said opting out of politics was itself a political statement.
Dick Costolo, a former chief executive of Twitter, tweeted that “me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business” would be shot in “the revolution.” He deleted the post after, he said, it set off violent threats and harassment.
In an interview, Mr. Costolo said it was impossible for companies to separate their mission from their impact on the world. “If you try to separate the social contract from the economic contract, don’t be surprised when there’s an uprising, because they’re linked,” he said.
Some Coinbase workers disagreed with Mr. Armstrong. “I’m just so mystified by the apparent lack of awareness in the blog post,” Ryan King, a Coinbase engineer, wrote on the company’s internal Slack messaging system. The message was reviewed by The New York Times. “A declaration that we’re not going to touch ‘broader societal issues’ fails to acknowledge that we’re a part of society.”
About 60 Coinbase employees, or 5 percent of the work force, have resigned, the company said. A spokeswoman declined further comment.
Fred Wilson, an investor at Union Square Ventures and a Coinbase board member, said in an interview that there were no easy answers for start-up leaders. “Many, many C.E.O.s have told me privately that they would like to have done what Brian did but don’t want to take the heat that he has taken,” he said.
On Monday, Mr. Wilson wrote a blog post about removing start-up chief executives who have “failed to manage numerous important challenges.” The post prompted speculation that he was referring to Mr. Armstrong, but Mr. Wilson said it was a metaphor for President Trump.
The political debates among Silicon Valley start-ups have ramped up since the Coinbase episode. Last week, Soylent’s Mr. Rhinehart published his post supporting Mr. West’s presidential bid. Mr. Rhinehart, who is on the board but not involved in the company’s day-to-day operations, also attacked the political system and the media, writing that “politics has always been based on jokes.”
Demir Vangelov, Soylent’s chief executive, said Mr. Rhinehart’s post did not represent the company. Soylent’s focus is on bringing “the best complete nutrition to everyone,” he said, and it does not take political stances.
At Expensify, based in Portland, Ore., Mr. Barrett took a different position. After spending more than a decade in Silicon Valley, where he found a “uniform view” that politics was not good for business, he moved to Portland four years ago. Now, he said, “choosing not to participate is also a choice — it’s a choice to defend the status quo.”
So when Expensify employees drafted an email to tell customers to vote for Mr. Biden, after concluding in an internal discussion that re-electing Mr. Trump would be a threat to democracy, Mr. Barrett favored sending it out. While roughly a third of Expensify’s top management opposed sending the email because it could alienate customers, the majority ruled, Mr. Barrett said.
Last Thursday, Expensify blasted its message to its 10 million users. “Not many expense reports get filed during a civil war,” Mr. Barrett wrote.
The email instantly drew criticism and praise on social media. Job applications, web traffic and customer sign-ups have since spiked, Mr. Barrett said. But he also received death threats, prompting him to hire private security. No customers have quit, potentially because Expensify’s system takes months to switch out of, he said.
Tayo Oviosu, chief executive of Paga, a payments start-up in Lagos, Nigeria, said Expensify’s email had crossed a line. Mr. Oviosu isn’t opposed to companies’ speaking up on social justice issues, “but that is very different than leveraging the fact that you used my personal information to tell me I have to vote in a certain way,” he said. “That is wrong.”
Mr. Oviosu, who was using a trial version of Expensify and was considering adopting the paid version, said he now planned to look at alternatives. “I think they lost me completely on this,” he said.
The start-up culture wars are also evident on Clubhouse, where people join rooms and chat with one another. The app has been a popular place for investors such as Marc Andreessen and other techies to hang out in the pandemic. (Mr. Andreessen’s venture firm, Andreessen Horowitz, has invested in Clubhouse, Coinbase and Soylent.)
On Oct. 6, Mr. Andreessen started a Clubhouse room called “Holding Space for Karens,” which describes having empathy for “Karens,” a slang term for a pushy privileged woman. Another group, “Holding Space for Marc Andreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeessen,” soon popped up. There, people discussed their disappointment with the Karen discussion and other instances when, they said, Clubhouse was hostile to people of color.
Mr. Andreessen and others later started a Clubhouse room called “Silence,” where no one spoke. Andreessen Horowitz declined to comment.
At a “town hall” inside the app on Sunday, Clubhouse’s founders, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, were asked about Coinbase’s and Expensify’s political statements and where Clubhouse stood. They said the company was still deciding how Clubhouse would publicly back social causes and felt the platform should allow for multiple points of view, a spokeswoman said. She declined to comment further.
Yet even those wishing to stay out of politics are finding it hard to avoid. On Saturday, Mr. Armstrong shared Mr. Rhinehart’s blog post endorsing Mr. West on Twitter. “Epic,” tweeted Mr. Armstrong.
Several users pointed out the hypocrisy in Mr. Armstrong’s sharing something political after telling employees to abstain. One of his employees, Jesse Pollak, wrote that Mr. Armstrong had shared something with “a large number of inaccuracies, conspiracy theories, and misplaced assumptions.”
Soon after, Mr. Pollak and Mr. Armstrong deleted their tweets.
Over 18 years of working as a secretary at JPMorgan Chase, Wanda Wilson had learned to brush aside remarks directed at her race.
“Wanda, do you mind if I tell a Black joke?” a colleague once asked her. Another co-worker told her that she disliked Black people in general but made an exception for Ms. Wilson.
Ms. Wilson saw no reason to complain. JPMorgan had been a good employer, giving her opportunities to rise through the secretarial ranks and providing assistance during a fraught time in her personal life. She felt proud defending her career to her family, which included several prominent civil rights activists. (Her mother is the poet Amina Baraka, and her stepfather was Amiri Baraka, the playwright and poet. Her younger brother is Ras Baraka, the mayor of Newark.)
But things soured in 2016 after a new colleague began to bully Ms. Wilson and order her around, according to a lawsuit Ms. Wilson filed against JPMorgan and its chief executive, Jamie Dimon. For the first time, Ms. Wilson felt that she was not on equal footing with her white colleagues, according to the suit. She complained to JPMorgan officials, but the bank’s response shattered her faith in her employer, she said. After she was unable to find a different job within JPMorgan, the bank fired her. She then sued, alleging race discrimination and retaliation and seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
JPMorgan said its officials had done everything in their power to make things right for Ms. Wilson. “The firm denies that it engaged in any race discrimination or harassment or retaliation with respect to Ms. Wilson’s employment,” said Joe Evangelisti, a JPMorgan spokesman.
The bank tried to have the lawsuit, filed in 2018, dismissed. This month, a judge ruled that the two sides should engage in mediation instead.
Wall Street has come under growing scrutiny for how it treats people of color, and Black employees in particular. Last year, The New York Times detailed allegations of racism at Phoenix-area branches of JPMorgan. Recently, a former head of global diversity at Morgan Stanley, a Black woman, sued the bank for discrimination.
But while such cases claim broad and systemic discrimination involving banks, Ms. Wilson’s lawsuit tells the complicated story of interactions between co-workers that can carry racist undertones. It shows how allegations of racism in a workplace can be difficult to verify, even when a company conducts an investigation. That’s especially so in the absence of explicit language or actions — such as a racial slur or blackface — that are easily identifiable as racist.
“This isn’t the ’60s or the ’50s,” said David Carlor, a financial adviser who is Black. “No one’s going to tell you: ‘Because you’re Black, go get us coffee.’ You’re just going to find that you’re the one that’s being treated most disrespectfully in the office.”
At JPMorgan, Ms. Wilson was often the first to arrive and the last to leave, according to three of her former colleagues, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She got lunch and coffee for her superiors and ran errands that seemed well outside her job description, like buying a mirror for her boss’s office.
In March 2016, Ms. Wilson joined the audit department as an executive administrative assistant — a coveted position among secretaries because it involved handling duties for one senior executive in that department.
Around the same time, Janet Jarnagin was also assigned to Ms. Wilson’s boss as a team leader. A midlevel executive, Ms. Jarnagin’s duties included helping the audit department prepare presentations and reports, according to a publicly available résumé.
Over the next few months, Ms. Jarnagin began ordering Ms. Wilson to hang coats, get coffee and lunch, or carry out requests — such as making photocopies — by visitors to the department, according to the lawsuit.
Once, Ms. Jarnagin stood up from her desk and announced that she was “sending Wanda out for coffee,” asking if anyone else wanted to place an order with her. Other Black secretaries who had overheard Ms. Jarnagin later teased Ms. Wilson about being treated like Kizzy, an enslaved character in the book and television mini-series “Roots.”
Ms. Wilson said that she asked Ms. Jarnagin not to use the term “sending” any more, but that Ms. Jarnagin ignored her. Ms. Wilson described the incident in a 2017 interview with a JPMorgan official, a recording of which she provided to The Times.
In her lawsuit, Ms. Wilson described how Ms. Jarnagin had been making these demands only of her — the lone Black secretary in the vicinity. She tried to distance herself. When she rearranged her desk so that the two women no longer had an unobstructed view of each other, Ms. Jarnagin mocked her for trying to build a “Mexican wall” out of a stack of folders on her desk, according to the lawsuit.
Ms. Wilson complained about Ms. Jarnagin to their boss, who told her to work things out on her own, according to the complaint. She then told a human resources representative that Ms. Jarnagin was ordering her around and bad-mouthing her work. JPMorgan’s Mr. Evangelisti said the bank had begun investigating Ms. Wilson’s complaints immediately.
Henry Klingeman, a lawyer for Ms. Jarnagin, dismissed the allegations. “In the high-intensity, high-stress world of New York banking, Janet was no more rude than a male employee who is assertive,” he said in an email. “That she asked an administrative assistant to get coffee for senior management is one of the criticisms made against her. There is nothing to this, much less implied racism.”
Ms. Wilson eventually emailed Mr. Dimon: “I have followed the chain of command and have not received any assistance.” Mr. Dimon did not personally respond, but her complaint was promptly shared with senior bank officials who stepped up their investigation.
Bank officials interviewed people in the immediate vicinity of Ms. Wilson and Ms. Jarnagin, two people familiar with the investigation said. The investigators determined that Ms. Jarnagin had behaved rudely toward Ms. Wilson. However, since Ms. Jarnagin had been rude in the past to other employees who were not Black, they concluded that her behavior was not racially motivated, the people said.
Mr. Evangelisti said the officials’ conclusions had been “based on information provided by Ms. Wilson at the time.”
Ms. Jarnagin was given two “coaching” sessions, including one by her boss, the people said. She was never formally disciplined, but was advised to treat Ms. Wilson more gently, they said. Ms. Jarnagin left JPMorgan in November 2017.
JPMorgan officials also did a broader “climate study” of the area where Ms. Wilson worked, the people familiar with the matter said. The study concluded that there did not appear to be a problem with racism.
However, two Black employees interviewed for the study, who did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, told The Times that race was a constant undertone in their interactions with non-Black employees. One said Black secretaries felt it was harder for them to get promotions, and they believed they were underpaid. But the Black employees said they downplayed the racism they witnessed to bank officials, partly because it wasn’t directed at them.
JPMorgan officials have recently acknowledged that some employees still do not feel safe speaking up. In March, the bank announced that it had reviewed its anti-discrimination practices and identified several areas for improvement.
Things didn’t improve for Ms. Wilson after her complaint.
Mr. Evangelisti said JPMorgan gave her nearly a year to search for a new job inside the bank as well as a raise and bonus during that time. Ms. Wilson said the only job the bank offered her was a role working for a man who had become enraged at her over a disagreement with her boss when she worked in the audit department.
Mr. Evangelisti said the role would have come with the same title, grade and compensation as her prior job, “but Ms. Wilson declined the role and refused to provide any context about an ‘unpleasant exchange’ she claims to have had.”
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 Ms. Leiba, an instructional design manager at City College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., 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,” Ms. 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 Mr. 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, Ms. Leiba and Ms. 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, Ms. 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,” Ms. 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 Ms. Joseph wrote in September vanished from the platform. Ms. Joseph, who lives in Brooklyn, 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.”) Ms. 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.”
Another user, 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 had never received an explanation. Two others, Ms. 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, the 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.”
‘The full-on Jessica’
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,” Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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,” for instance, 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, the 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.
‘Kindly stop censoring Black content’
One of the most vociferous presences on Black LinkedIn is Ms. Butler, a human resources consultant and vice president at a start-up. 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 C.E.O.s and V.C.s to help change their outlook and how they support Black employees and founders,” said Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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,” Ms. Butler wrote recently. “Don’t talk about it, be about it. Period.”
Other stars of Black LinkedIn target specific companies. Ms. 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, the 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.
Ms. 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?” Ms. 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.”
Ms. 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.”
“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,” added Phil Molé, who works at a software company in Chicago. “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.”
Mr. Mix concluded: “Not sure if I’m more shocked or depressed by this miserably inadequate show from LinkedIn.”