Former Pinterest employees allege 'pure hell' of unfair pay, racism and retaliation

Key Points
  • Two Black former Pinterest employees went public with claims of discrimination and retaliation during their time at the company that ended last month. 
  • Their stories come as companies across Silicon Valley and the U.S. grapple with how to respond to growing calls for racial justice.
  • A Pinterest spokesperson said in a statement the company is "confident both employees were treated fairly" but that it is committed to furthering efforts in diversity and inclusion.

In this article

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann speaks in conversation with Matthew Lynley of TechCrunch during the TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2017 on September 18, 2017 in San Francisco, California.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Two Black former Pinterest employees went public with claims of discrimination and retaliation during their time at the company that ended last month. 

Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, who had worked on Pinterest's public policy team, said their attempts to achieve fair compensation were rebuffed and they experienced retaliation after retaining outside counsel. In a phone interview with CNBC Tuesday, the two described several instances where they felt managers at Pinterest unfairly assessed their decisions and displayed "gaslighting" tactics when they brought up their concerns over issues like unwelcome comments on ethnicity.

Because of their experiences at the company, Ozoma and Shimizu Banks said Pinterest's statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement rang hollow. As protests against police brutality ripple across the country in the wake of several more killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, companies throughout the U.S. are grappling with ways to express their support for Black employees and customers. As they rush out public statements, several companies have been forced to face a reckoning of their own role in upholding racist systems and failing to create a diverse workplace.

According to Pinterest's latest diversity report, 4% of employees identified as Black, 45% identified as white and 44% identified as Asian. Pinterest said in the report it aims to increase hiring of underrepresented groups across the company.

Pinterest declined to comment on specific allegations that CNBC shared from Ozoma and Shimizu Banks, but a spokesperson said in a statement: "We took these issues seriously and conducted a thorough investigation when they were raised, and we're confident both employees were treated fairly. We want each and every one of our employees at Pinterest to feel welcomed, valued, and respected. As we outlined in our statement on June 2nd, we're committed to advancing our work in inclusion and diversity by taking action at our company and on our platform. In areas where we, as a company, fall short, we must and will do better."

'Living a double life'

As members of the public policy team, Ozoma and Shimizu Banks often became the face of their work, including several initiatives at Pinterest that garnered waves of positive press. Those projects included Pinterest's decision to remove vaccine misinformation from search and stop promoting wedding content that romanticizes former slave plantations.

Months before Pinterest's April 2019 IPO, Ozoma engaged her manager and HR to discuss a pay increase, citing her leadership on key projects, she said. But after months of negotiations, Ozoma engaged outside counsel to help make her case.

Internally, Ozoma continued negotiations with her employer after her lawyer first reached out on her behalf in May 2019. But to the outside world, Ozoma remained the face of major initiatives for Pinterest.

"I was asked to speak everywhere from Geneva to Singapore on behalf of the company, and I was doing all of that sort of like living a double life while I was dealing with all of the retaliation and intimidation internally," she said. 

She described the year before she and Shimizu Banks left the company in May 2020 as "pure hell."

Part of that time included having her personal information released, or doxed, last June after a former employee at the company leaked documents she worked on to a right-wing group, Ozoma said. Shortly after, she said, her personal information showed up on forums including 4chan and 8chan. Pinterest's slow response in helping her remove information including her cell phone number and email forced her to turn to former colleagues at Google and Facebook to help regain her privacy. Ozoma said it was on her to contract security companies that would help get the issue under control.

In an email shared with CNBC, Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann wrote to Ozoma after the incident, "I'm personally concerned that when these risks were raised, we didn't take the right steps." 

Shimizu Banks, who was one month into her role at the time, said she had tried to warn managers prior to the doxing that they should be prepared for such an event. She said her experience at Google and in the Obama Administration taught her that doxing often follows leaks by fringe groups. But Shimizu Banks said she was told there was no need for concern. The next day, she said, Ozoma and other employees saw their information shared online.

The flip-side of 'nice' culture

Pinterest has a reputation for being exceptionally "nice." Interviews with several former Pinterest employees last year revealed a non-confrontational culture that would sometimes manifest as passive-aggressiveness.

Ozoma and Shimizu Banks said that culture contributed to the alleged gaslighting they felt from managers and HR. It also worked to shield discriminatory practices from white and/or male employees, they said.

When Ozoma expressed her frustration with a performance review to her manager a few months ago, she recounted that he told her, "I'm a nice guy, everyone likes me. So maybe you have an issue but I don't have an issue with you. I could never lie."

"I just sat there like this is gaslighting personified," Ozoma said. "It was almost like a neon gaslighting sign was flashing over his head while he was talking to me. And I believe that he believed what was coming out of his mouth, that so many people at the company and in his life had told him that he's a nice guy that he could not hear what I was saying and he could not see what I was doing. And that was part of what made speaking up so hard. There are a number of people who have reached out and said wow, I had no idea what was going on."

Ozoma said she took issue with her manager's suggestion in her performance review that she present multiple options for policy positions with pros and cons, rather than advocating heavily for one. The review cited her advocacy for discontinuing the promotion of romanticized plantation weddings, the step that Pinterest ultimately took. 

When Shimizu Banks reported comments made by her manager, she was disappointed with the conclusion that found no evidence of bias. Shimizu Banks said her manager had made an unwelcome comment related to her ethnicity, and later used what she called "dog whistle" terms in reference to a Jewish colleague. 

In an email obtained by CNBC, an HR representative told Shimizu Banks that even if the manager "had referenced your ethnicity and asked for your ethnic perspective uninvited ... I found that with no negative connotations attached to the statements, they do not indicate bias on their own and are not a violation of our Code of Conduct."

Shimizu Banks said Pinterest forced her to undergo an internal investigation based on what she called baseless claims that she had recorded meetings, and other allegations. She also said her business-related purchases for Black community outreach efforts were scrutinized while payments related to other groups, like a tech think tank, went untouched.

Pay levels

The two former employees said Pinterest's payment structure, common in tech companies, contributed to their difficulty advocating for a raise. 

"The levels do allow for bias to creep in and the most insidious part is they allow for that while having the veneer of being fair," Ozoma said. "You bring people, Black women in this example, in systematically at lower levels. You pay everyone the same within the level, so then your statement can be, oh we pay people fairly, when the issue isn't are you paying people the same within the level, the issue is that they shouldn't have been at that low level. They should have been at the level that corresponded with the work that they were doing."

Both former employees are taking time off to recover from the experiences before jumping to their next roles. They acknowledged that their backgrounds in tech have afforded them the privilege to sustain themselves while taking that time, and said they feel compelled to speak out because of that privilege.

"I want to let other Black women and women of color know you're not alone, you're not crazy and that we're here for you to affirm your story and to listen. And you will be believed," Shimizu Banks said. "I put this out there with the call to action and the hope that real systemic change happens within the industry and beyond."

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