After Netflix layoffs, questions arise over diversity efforts
In December, editor-in-chief Evette Dionne revealed to her Twitter followers what she had been working on for months – leading a team of writers for Netflix’s website, Tudum, with an editorial strategy to elevate conversations on inclusion and representation.
“So sociopolitical stuff? All of us,” Dionne tweeted on Tudum’s launch day. “Are you thinking about the impact of Netflix in our world at large? All of us.”
But four months later, she and other members of her team were fired. Last week, Netflix laid off 150 employees and dozens of contractors and part-timers. Some of the cuts impacted social media teams, writers, and editors who aimed to elevate diverse content and talent.
As the company fights to maintain its leadership position in the streaming world, some of the laid-off workers wonder if diversity efforts will be part of the collateral damage.
“I don’t want to dwell on these points, but almost everyone I see on LinkedIn posting about being laid off has worked on diversity, equity and inclusion throughout the company,” tweeted Dionne, a former magazine editor, last week. “They are not the only people to be fired, but there are too many of the 150 to be a coincidence.”
On Wednesday, Netflix will hold a town hall staff meeting to discuss the layoffs that have heightened concerns about the company’s culture and strategy.
The uproar comes amid ongoing controversy over the streamer’s shows, including a throwback to a Ricky Gervais comedy special, “SuperNature,” released on Tuesday, which contains content critics have called transphobic.
The Times spoke to seven fired people, mostly from underrepresented communities, who worked on its social media teams or Tudum, the promotional publication previously championed by former marketing director Bozoma Saint John. They declined to be publicly identified for fear of reprisals or violation of nondisclosure agreements.
Netflix has recruited many former journalists with the promise of high salaries, ranging from $60 to $90 an hour at Tudum, insiders said.
“A big, shiny company like Netflix comes in offering more money than we’ve ever seen in our lives,” said a contract worker who worked on social media and was laid off last week. “Unfortunately, it now seems like it was too good to be true. Was it all really performative?
In a statement, Netflix disputed that it was backing down from its diversity and inclusion efforts. The company said it was ending a contract with an outside vendor to bring social media work in-house, and that audience-focused channels such as “Strong Black Lead” remain a priority. About half of Netflix’s workforce comes from an underrepresented ethnic group or race, he said.
“We are making changes to how we support our publishing efforts, including bringing some of this important work in-house,” Netflix said in a statement. “Our social networks continue to grow and innovate, and we are investing heavily in them.”
Netflix is one of many Hollywood players who have touted diversity and inclusion efforts following the murder of George Floyd. Last year, the streamer said it was committing $100 million over five years to organizations that help underrepresented communities find jobs in television and film. Netflix has also pledged to allocate 2% of its cash to black-run financial institutions and to work with fledgling filmmakers that include women and people of color.
Social media on Twitter and Instagram that focused on telling the stories of the LGBTQ, Pan-Asian Diaspora, Latinx, and Black communities helped promote various content on Netflix.
In recent months, however, former social media editors and Tudum staff have said their editorial freedom has been curtailed.
“We weren’t allowed to touch on some controversial topics,” one entrepreneur said.
Some members of the “Most” team that promoted LGBTQ storytelling said they were asked to tweet about the reality show “Love is Blind,” which features heterosexual couples.
“They never felt like they cared about telling queer stories,” said a former entrepreneur who worked on “Most.” “It was mostly about getting the outside to believe that queer stories were a priority.”
Netflix disputed that claim, citing a study by advocacy group GLAAD claiming it had more LGBTQ characters than other streaming services.
But several laid-off workers said the culture had changed after Netflix faced backlash from the transgender community and its allies for the release of Dave Chappelle’s comedy special ‘The Closer’. The transphobic comments in the special prompted Netflix employees to stage a protest strike, and its employee resource group Trans* submitted a list of demands to the company, most of which were ignored, according to three people familiar with requests.
A former contractor, hired just two months before the layoffs, said a Netflix recruiter asked them during their interview if they would be unable to separate their ‘identity politics’ from their position because they are trans .
“I spent hours with my girlfriend trying to dissect this [the recruiter] that is, after the interview,” they said.
Earlier this month, the company updated its culture note, saying its library may include stories that run counter to some employees’ personal values.
“If you’re struggling to support the breadth of our content, Netflix may not be the best place for you,” the memo reads.
Then came layoffs that affected contractors who worked on social media channels designed to promote LGBTQ storytelling, Asian Pacific Islanders, Latinx and black people.
Not all of the terminated workers of color criticized the company’s commitments to diversity. Regina Kim, who worked on Tudum and was fired, praised Netflix for spotlighting stories about Asians.
“I’m just happy to have contributed in a small way to this company that has literally changed my life and my outlook on the world and helped me be proud of my heritage,” Kim wrote on LinkedIn. “That’s why after all the bad news (some true, some not) that’s been coming out lately, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say anything negative about Netflix because of the impact he has had on me, my family, and AAPI and other marginalized communities.”
Several people who lost their jobs worked for Made by Fabric, based in San Diego County. The laid-off contractors said they were told in a meeting that Made by Fabric’s only customer was Netflix and that the company would also be dissolved.
Made by Fabric executives did not respond to a request for comment.
Within 15 minutes of Netflix’s announcement, all 75 Made by Fabric employee accounts associated with the streaming giant were disconnected, according to a contractor.
“Everything is gone,” the employee said. “Our Slack was gone. Our Gmail is gone. All. That’s how they decided to let people go.
Many of those who worked for Made by Fabric were previously freelance writers for Netflix. They joined the company as employees so they could have full-time benefits, including health insurance.
Made by Fabric employees told The Times that the company will use the money remaining in its accounts to pay at least six weeks of severance pay.
“It’s very, very painful,” said another employee. “I felt like I was doing my job well. So to have that taken away so quickly when you haven’t even done anything wrong – it’s scary to go through.
The cuts at Netflix come as the company faces a series of challenges. The streamer lost 200,000 subscribers in the first quarter for the first time in more than a decade and expects to lose 2 million more this quarter. Netflix stock fell about 35% on April 20, the biggest one-day stock drop since 2004.
The company, which remains the leading subscription streaming service with 222 million subscribers worldwide, plans to solve its problem by monetizing password sharing, exploring a lower-cost ad-supported subscription tier and expanding its mobile game offerings.
In a May 17 email to staffers, Sergio Ezama, director of talent at Netflix, wrote: “While we continue to invest heavily in Netflix, outspending content competition, given the slowdown of our revenue growth, we also need to cut some expenses to prioritize our biggest opportunities (e.g., non-English content).
Many industry watchers expect more layoffs to occur this year.
“They just hired and hired and told people to spend as much money as they wanted and now realized that wasn’t a real business strategy,” said another former employee.
Associate Editor Matt Brennan, Times writer Ryan Faughnder and Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.