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After layoffs at Netflix, questions mount over diversity efforts

People gathered outside Netflix in Hollywood last October
Netflix employees, activists and supporters gathered in Hollywood last October to protest Netflix’s response to Dave Chappelle’s special “The Closer,” which contained transphobic material.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

In December, editor Evette Dionne revealed to her Twitter followers what she’d been working on for months — leading a team of writers for Netflix’s website Tudum, with an editorial strategy around elevating conversations about inclusion and representation.

“So sociopolitical stuff? All us,” Dionne tweeted the day Tudum launched. “Thinking about the impact of Netflix in our broader world? All us.”

But four months later, she and other members of her team were let go. Last week, Netflix laid off 150 employees and dozens of contractors and part-time workers. 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 leading position in the streaming world, some of the laid-off workers are questioning whether diversity efforts will become part of the collateral damage.

“Not to belabor these points, but nearly everyone I see on LinkedIn posting about being laid off worked on diversity, equity and inclusion across the company,” Dionne, a former magazine editor, tweeted last week. “These are not the only people being laid off, but they comprise too many of the 150 for it to be coincidence.”

As Netflix grapples with a loss in subscribers, the company’s vaunted “team” culture is coming under strain as some employees worry about their future.

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On Wednesday, Netflix will hold a staff town hall meeting discussing the layoffs that have deepened anxieties about the company’s culture and strategy.

The tumult comes amid ongoing controversy over the streamer’s shows, including blowback over a Ricky Gervais comedy special, “SuperNature,” released Tuesday that contains content that critics have blasted as transphobic.

The Times spoke with seven laid off people, mostly from underrepresented communities, who worked on its social media teams or Tudum, the promotional publication previously championed by former Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John. They declined to be publicly identified for fear of retribution or violating nondisclosure agreements.

Netflix recruited many former journalists with the promise of high salaries, which ranged from $60 to $90 an hour at Tudum, insiders said.

A big shiny company like Netflix comes along offering more money than any of us had 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 this all really performative?”

In a statement, Netflix disputed that it was retreating from its diversity and inclusion efforts. The company said it was ending a contract with an outside vendor in order 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, it 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 channels continue to grow and innovate, and we are investing heavily in them.”

Netflix is one of many Hollywood players that 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 TV and film. Netflix also pledged to allocate 2% of its cash holdings to Black-led financial institutions and work with first-time filmmakers that include women and people of color.

As the streaming wars heat up, Netflix is not just aiming for big name directors, but also making an effort to support first-time filmmakers. It’s part of a long-term strategy to build the company’s feature film business.

Social media handles on Twitter and Instagram that focused on telling the stories of LGBTQ, pan-Asian diaspora, Latinx and Black communities helped promote diverse content on Netflix.

In recent months, however, former social media writers and Tudum staffers said their editorial freedom had been restricted.

“We weren’t allowed to touch certain topics dinged controversial,” a contractor said.

Some members of the “Most” team that promoted LGBTQ storytelling said they were asked to tweet about reality dating show “Love is Blind,” which features heterosexual couples.

“It never felt like they cared about telling queer stories,” said a former contractor who worked on ‘Most.’ “It seemed very much about externally making it appear that queer stories were a priority.”

LGBTQ+ employees behind Netflix’s ‘Most’ Twitter account say ‘the last couple of weeks have been hard’ after the release of Dave Chappelle’s ‘The Closer.’

Netflix disputed the claim, citing a study by the advocacy group GLAAD saying it had more LGBTQ characters than other streaming services.

But several laid-off workers said the culture changed after Netflix experienced backlash from the transgender community and its allies for releasing Dave Chappelle’s comedy special, “The Closer.” Transphobic comments in the special prompted Netflix employees to stage a walkout in protest, and its employee resource group Trans* submitted a list of demands for the company, most of which were ignored, according to three people familiar with the demands.

One former contractor, hired just two months before the layoffs, said a Netflix recruiter asked them during their interview whether they would be unable to separate their “identity politics” from their position because they’re trans.

“I spent hours with my girlfriend trying to dissect what [the recruiter] meant by that after the interview,” they said.

Earlier this month, the company updated its culture memo, saying its library may include stories that run counter to some employees’ personal values.

“If you’d find it hard to support our content breadth, Netflix may not be the best place for you,” the memo said.

Then came the layoffs that impacted contractors who worked on social media channels designed to promote LGBTQ, Asian Pacific Islander, Latinx and Black storytelling.

Netflix executive Vernā Myers shares how the streamer improved Black representation at the company and the efforts it is making to improve diversity on its shows and staff.

Not all of the laid-off workers of color were critical of the company’s diversity commitments. Regina Kim, who worked on Tudum and was laid off, praised Netflix for highlighting stories about Asian people.

“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 is why, after all the bad news (some of it true, some not) that has come out lately, I don’t think I could ever say anything negative about Netflix because of the sheer impact it’s had on me, my family and the AAPI & other marginalized communities.”

Several people who lost their jobs worked for San Diego County-based Made by Fabric. Laid-off contractors said they were told at a meeting that Made by Fabric’s only client was Netflix and that the business would also dissolve.

Made by Fabric executives did not respond to a request for comment.

Within 15 minutes of Netflix’s announcement, all 75 of Made by Fabric’s employee accounts associated with the streaming giant had been disconnected, according to one contractor.

“Everything was gone,” the employee said. “Our Slack was gone. Our Gmail was gone. Everything. That is the way that they have 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 become eligible for full-time benefits, including health insurance.

Made by Fabric employees told The Times that the company will use the remaining money in its accounts to pay out at least six weeks of severance pay.

“It’s very, very painful,” another employee said. “I felt like I was doing my job well. So to have that taken away so quickly when you didn’t even do anything wrong — it feels scary to move through.”

The cuts at Netflix come as the company faces a raft 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 declined about 35% on April 20, the biggest one day stock decline since 2004.

The company, which remains the dominant subscription streaming service with 222 million global subscribers, plans to tackle its issue by monetizing password sharing, exploring a lower cost ad-supported subscription tier and expanding its mobile game offerings.

Netflix cited several reasons for the subscriber loss, including rising competition and password sharing. Executives said they would consider a lower-priced option with ads.

In a May 17 email to staffers, Sergio Ezama, Netflix’s chief talent officer wrote, “While we continue to invest heavily in Netflix, spending ahead of the competition on content, given our slowing revenue growth, we also need to pull back some spending to prioritize our biggest opportunities (e.g. non-English content).”

Many industry observers expect more layoffs will occur this year.

“They just hired and hired and told people to spend as much money as they wanted to and now realized that’s not an actual business strategy,” said another former employee.

Deputy editor Matt Brennan, Times staff writer Ryan Faughnder and Times researcher Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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