BlackRock under pressure to live up to its promises on diversity

When Essma Bengabsia joined BlackRock full-time in 2018, she thought she had found the perfect launch pad for her career. Born and raised in the US, the New York University graduate looked forward to becoming one of the first hijab-wearing Muslim women to work on the trading floor of the world’s largest asset manager, a company known for promoting “sustainable” capitalism.

Her idyll ended quickly, she says. One colleague ridiculed her for saying, “As-salamu alaykum,” a greeting in Arabic, on the phone with her parents, while another accused her of slacking off because she took short breaks to pray in the Muslim tradition. She was called a “grinch” for not wearing a Christmas sweater at a festive season party and told to “be American” when she said she did not celebrate the holiday. With her headphones on, she overheard a male colleague who often “leered” at her asking members of their team whether he should touch her, and if that would constitute sexual harassment, as her co-workers egged him on. 

Even for a Muslim woman who had grown up in post-9/11 America, it was too much to take. She complained to BlackRock’s human resources department, but the company told her it was unable to corroborate her claims of discrimination or harassment. After her psychologist diagnosed her with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and situational depression from her work environment, she quit the company in May 2019.

However, as far as BlackRock is concerned, Bengabsia has not gone away. She detailed her work experiences in an online post last month, then joined with a former colleague to send an open letter to Larry Fink, BlackRock’s chief executive, calling on the asset manager to end discrimination at the company and protect employees who complain about it. Hundreds of thousands of page-views later, their travails have become known across Wall Street.

“In the beginning, I kept telling myself I can push through this,” Bengabsia told the Financial Times. “But I was spending five days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, in this environment, and it was completely destroying me.”

The result is that BlackRock — which manages $8.7tn assets and serves clients including the US Federal Reserve — finds itself in an uncomfortable position. Fink has gained international renown as a champion of good corporate behaviour, calling in his annual letter to chief executives for linking “profit and purpose,” including by fostering a more diverse workforce. Now, he is facing pressure from employees past and present to live up to his own words. 

Larry Fink, chief executive, has pledged to root out employees who stand in the way of a more inclusive BlackRock © Alex Kraus/Bloomberg

BlackRock has tried to highlight its efforts at inclusion in four memos to its workforce in recent weeks and in two briefings by its leaders this month. Speaking at a town hall two weeks ago to reveal a revamped diversity strategy — developed in the aftermath of the police shooting of George Floyd — Fink pledged to root out employees who stand in the way of more inclusive BlackRock.

“If you can’t change your behaviours, if you can’t live the principles of what we are trying to say, please leave, go to another firm, and I really urge that,” Fink said. “If you’re not leaving the firm and we see that behaviour we are going to ask you to leave.”

Last June, amid the protests that followed Floyd’s killing, Fink said BlackRock planned to double black representation at the director level and higher from 3 per cent to 6 per cent, and increase overall black representation among its US workforce from 5 per cent to 6.5 per cent by 2024. The US population is 13 per cent black.

BlackRock, in its memos this year, acknowledged “reports of employees experiencing conduct that fell short of the inclusive culture we strive for.” It also promised to overhaul its process of investigating employee concerns, although it did not say when that would take place.

But it suggested complaints by individual employees were not reflective of its corporate culture. “The behaviour as described in these reports is not what BlackRock stands for. It is not who we are,” Manish Mehta, global head of human resources, wrote in a memo sent February 4 that was seen by the FT.

BlackRock told the FT that it had investigated Bengabsia’s complaints “but did not find she had been the subject of discrimination or harassment”.

While working at BlackRock, Bengabsia said she discussed her experiences with acquaintances at the company, including two who confirmed the conversations when contacted by the FT.

A petition launched by Bengabsia to end discrimination at BlackRock has received more than 10,500 signatures © Pascal Perich/FT

She went public with her allegations last month in a Medium post. Two weeks later, she and Mugi Nguyai, a Kenyan former BlackRock employee who had also written about his experiences at the company on Medium, sent their open letter to Fink. The Medium posts shared by Bengabsia and Nguyai on LinkedIn have been viewed more than half a million times. A petition launched by Bengabsia to end discrimination at BlackRock has received more than 10,500 signatures.

Their protests came only a month after Brittanie McGee, a former BlackRock employee who is black, filed a lawsuit alleging she was excluded from client meetings and “forced to stand by” as white colleagues were rewarded with higher pay and better assignments. She said company employees sometimes called it “WhiteRock” because of the lack of diversity. BlackRock said it had found no basis for her legal claims against the company. The company has until the end of the month to respond in court but declined to comment on whether it would contest the allegations.

The public complaints of Bengabsia, Nguyai and McGee were also echoed in interviews the FT conducted with 10 other current and former BlackRock employees from diverse backgrounds. All asked for anonymity, citing fears of potential consequences. Some said they had signed non-disclosure agreements upon leaving BlackRock. 

Some said they had heard employees of colour refer to the company as “WhiteRock,” and several added that they had suffered from anxiety or depression as a result of their experiences.

One current employee said she was ridiculed for her pronunciation of words by two white co-workers. Others said colleagues suggested they had only landed at BlackRock as part of diversity efforts or because their athletic talent had catapulted them to a top university. One black former employee recounted being told by a white male human resources director “to tone it down and not be my full self at work, because being gay and black was just too much for people at work.”

“It’s an emotional toll to work at BlackRock as a person of colour,” said one current employee. “Every time I see another person of colour joining or interning I’m like, please escape, find a better opportunity.”

BlackRock said it has “a number of programs designed to ensure we are developing our talent, including black professionals.” It said these services include “coaching, sponsorship and learning sessions focused on developing business insights and enterprise leadership skills to maximise participants’ strategic and commercial impact”.

But some past and current employees of colour said they felt overlooked at BlackRock. One former employee said he was told he “didn’t belong here” after he inquired about a promotion to a client-facing role.

“Not having grown up in the US, I’ve never been conditioned to believe that I was a minority,” said Nguyai, the co-author with Bengabsia of the open letter to Fink. “And then you get to BlackRock . . . and you realise as far as the senior leadership of this team is concerned the only reason you’re here is to boost the diversity numbers.”


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