Will civil rights audits make a difference? Microsoft, Amazon, and the Nation’s Racial Calculation – GeekWire

Former United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks at a press conference in 2016. (Photo by Eli Alford, DOJ/EOUSA, via Flickr, Creative Commons)

Microsoft and Amazon join a growing group of companies conducting civil rights audits following the racial reckoning that began in 2020 with a spate of police killings of people of color.

Last week, Microsoft announced that it will commission and publish the results of a third-party civil rights audit of workplace policies and practices to be completed next year. It comes two months after Amazon reversed its stance on civil rights audits and hired former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to review policies that affect the company’s hourly workforce. .

Civil rights audits are becoming a popular way for tech companies to address accusations of bias and discrimination. Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Google, as well as several major banks and other companies have all commissioned these third-party reviews of their policies.

From a public relations perspective, audits are a useful tool, especially as shareholders increasingly demand a stronger equity position from the companies they invest in. But civil rights audits vary widely in their approach, measures and definitions of success. For audits to yield meaningful results for employees and marginalized users, experts say many companies need to go further.

What is a civil rights audit?

When a company launches a discrimination audit – often in response to a racist incident – ​​it can take various forms. Reviews are voluntary and it is ultimately up to the company to decide which aspects of their business or product should be put under the microscope. In the tech industry, audits typically focus on biases built into the company’s algorithms. For example, a social media company could analyze which ads target minorities and why.

But audits can focus on a wide range of factors, including employee diversity, salary and promotion policies, how clients are approved for services, and more.

Organizations can frame information to make themselves look better than they actually are, said Elizabeth Umphress, a management professor at the University of Washington whose research focuses on diversity, ethics, inclusion and the organizational behavior.

“We have to agree on what those metrics are up front, make sure they’re consistent with our values…and then measure by those standards,” Umphress said. “We have to be really objective about what we’re measuring.”

In most cases, companies hire a third-party expert to review their policies and products. Facebook and Airbnb hired Laura Murphy, former head of the ACLU of Washington DC, to conduct their audits. Former Attorney General Eric Holder led audits of Starbucks and Uber. Umphress said it was useful to bring in an outside expert to carry out an audit, but warned there could still be conflicts of interest.

“The extent to which the organization can be transparent is good not only for external stakeholders, but also for internal stakeholders.”

“We’ll really have to look at the data carefully to make sure it’s reliable,” she said. “Bringing in third parties, although it sounds like a good idea, if those third parties are paid they have a conflict of interest and that creates a situation where they might be more likely to judge the organization more favorably.”

Large-scale civil rights audits of companies date back to 2016, when Airbnb guests began spreading stories of discrimination by hosts on social media. People of color have claimed that their bookings were denied and rejected without reason, a phenomenon that researchers and journalists were able to easily replicate on the platform.

Airbnb responded by teaming up with Murphy and the nonprofit Color of Change to conduct a review of how its product and policies may lead to racial discrimination. In response to the audit, Airbnb has made a series of changes to its product, including less emphasis on the use of user photos, increasing rentals that allow guests to book instantly without the approval of hosts and penalizing hosts who claim properties are booked when they are. not.

“Airbnb has long shown its Big Tech peers how to engage with civil rights groups to create inclusive online and offline spaces for Black people and people from marginalized communities,” said the president of Color. of Change, Rashad Robinson, in a statement following the audit. “Airbnb management has proven they understand that progress and partnership come from measured action, not broken promises.”

Airbnb’s fairness audit was widely considered a success, and it inspired companies in the tech industry and beyond to follow suit. The number of companies commissioning civil rights audits has increased in the wake of racial violence and the Black Lives Matter movement that has defined much of 2020.

What to expect from Microsoft and Amazon audits

The Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. (GeekWire Photo)

Last week, Microsoft became the latest company to commission a civil rights audit in its efforts to improve fairness within the company. In a blog post, Microsoft announced plans for a third-party audit to be conducted in fiscal year 2023 to identify “areas of opportunity that Microsoft needs to address” in its workplace policies.

Microsoft has come under fire in recent years for failing to tackle sexual harassment in its workplace. The audit is part of a series of initiatives announced by Microsoft last week, which also include the elimination of non-disclosure clauses in settlement and separation agreements with American workers that would prevent them from disclosing allegations. of misconduct.

Microsoft also said last week that it would reduce its use of non-compete agreements and publish salary data in job postings.

Microsoft executives declined to be interviewed for this story, but said the company was considering several third-party companies to conduct the audit. The company will release more details of its plans once the auditor has been selected.

When Amazon announced plans in April to conduct a civil rights audit, it took some of the company’s followers by surprise. Last year, Amazon asked the SEC to block a shareholder proposal calling for a racial equity audit. Amazon has repeatedly recommended that shareholders reject audit proposals, although in 2022 the company said that was because it had already committed to one.

Amazon declined to be interviewed for this story, but pointed to its 2022 proxy statement in which the company pledges to “respect and promote civil and human rights, racial equity and racial justice, diversity and inclusion, and non-discrimination, both in our operations and with our stakeholders.

Amazon’s audit will focus on its nearly one million hourly employees, excluding affiliates like Whole Foods. The company will publish the results once the audit is complete.

Why do companies conduct civil rights audits?

While many companies review their bias and discrimination policies, a formal third-party civil rights audit is typically conducted in response to a high-profile incident of racism or sexism.

Starbucks, for example, ordered an audit after two black men were arrested at one of the company’s stores in Philadelphia for asking to use the restroom without making a purchase first. As part of the review, Starbucks changed its policy on restrooms, allowing anyone to use them whether or not they buy something.

But Starbucks is a case study in the confines of voluntary civil rights audits. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said last week that the company may roll back the restroom policy, citing safety concerns for staff.

Best Practices

Ultimately, companies have wide discretion over what they choose to measure in these discrimination audits and what they change as a result. There is no widely accepted set of measures or standards to address bias in the workplace or the products companies make. But some researchers and nonprofits are working to change that.

Color of Change plays a leading role in setting standards for civil rights audits at technology companies. The nonprofit released a framework with step-by-step instructions on how tech companies should conduct civil rights audits and what they should measure.

Color of Change recommends ethical tech experts review all products for potential discrimination before release, as well as the data that powers online services. The guide also stresses the importance of publishing not only an audit report, but also the underlying data and methodology so that it can be assessed by third-party researchers.

“It comes down to transparency, Umphress said. “The extent to which the organization can be transparent is good not only for external stakeholders, but also for internal stakeholders.”

“That’s something Amazon can do,” she added. “That’s something Microsoft can do.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Amazon’s plan to release its audit results.

Comments are closed.