An Open Letter to BlackRock’s CEO, Larry Fink: Discrimination & A Roadmap to Justice

Essma Bengabsia (left) and Mugi N. Nguyai (right), are two former analysts at BlackRock in New York.

Date: February 18, 2021

To: Laurence D. Fink | Chief Executive Officer, BlackRock

Address: 55 East 52nd Street New York, NY 10055

Subject: Discrimination at BlackRock & A Roadmap to Justice

Dear Mr. Fink,

We hope this letter finds you well. Our names are Mugi N. Nguyai and Essma Bengabsia, and we are former BlackRock employees. BlackRock as an institution prides itself on diversity of thought, and inclusion of all races, cultures, and creeds. However, the reality that we each experienced was an institution built on racism, Islamophobia, misogyny, and sexual discrimination that caused a Kenyan man and an American Arab Muslim woman to leave BlackRock during our analyst years, in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

We have written about our experiences within our various divisions at BlackRock, Essma on her time within Credit Group through a Medium post, and Mugi on his time within Financial Markets Advisory (FMA) through a creative storyline. We are no longer at your organization because we could not continue to experience the traumas that we endured at BlackRock. When we tried to speak up for ourselves and approached the Managing Directors of our teams as well as the Human Resources and Employee Relations teams, we were labelled as difficult, aggressive, or too outspoken to manage. For example, the Head of FMA engaged in retaliation against Mugi for reporting the harassment and racism he was facing. The Head of FMA fired Mugi two days before his agreed-upon resignation date with HR.

We write to you to urge you to take definitive action so that all employees irrespective of their gender, sex, race, religion, disability, nationality, or ethnicity have a workplace that is welcoming, respectful, and inclusive and is free of harassment, hostility, and discrimination. BlackRock must show its commitment to diversity and inclusion through action, not boilerplate statements accompanied with little to no meaningful action.

Since we published our experiences, numerous current and former BlackRock employees contacted us expressing that they too have faced similar experiences. We have gathered accounts of discrimination based on gender, race, disability, and religious practices across business units particularly in the New York, San Francisco, and London offices. In the words of one current Black BlackRock employee who shared their experience (quote has been adjusted to protect anonymity):

In contrast to other colleagues, my line manager was not giving me opportunities to progress, isolating me and overloading me with work that others did not want to do. HR strategically tries to drive out Black employees who vocalize concern on their experiences. They do this via their favored compensation/bonus attack strategy and an action plan that puts the onus of the discrimination on the employee (‘you play a part in what’s happening to you’ approach).

Compared to other employees in the same role/function, my bonus is ~30% of theirs despite great performance reviews year on year. There is no pay transparency, so you can’t negotiate or complain about it. You don’t get to pick the work you do and end up with lower compensation compared with colleagues because you create less value.

Working at BlackRock as a Black person is very isolating and emotionally taxing. You are seen as lazy, incapable, and inferior by default despite repeatedly proving otherwise. Your hair/dress sense is critiqued with abnormal effort. All of the Black colleagues I knew have left the firm for similar reasons: lack of opportunities for progression, terrible compensation compared to their non-Black equivalents, and being type-cast as difficult for voicing themselves.

This employee went on to share other struggles that they and others continue to face at BlackRock:

(i) Racist and sexist comments made openly and out-loud in the office;

(ii) Black employees being mistaken for guards/receptionists. In one case, a Black employee was chased down because building security did not believe they worked there;

(iii) Employees berating their foreign colleagues in meetings;

(iv) Fake-activism around diversity and inclusion. Black employees doing all the groundwork while receiving no acknowledgment from their peers and seniors. All recognition and exposure is allocated to seniors who do no work except sign off on budgets;

(v) Microaggressions

This account affected us deeply because we felt that these reflected our own experiences strongly as well.

Mr. Fink, we are Africans, and despite what many believe, our peoples have a history of being builders, not destroyers. In this spirit, we write to you to be builders, not destroyers.

We write to you not in an effort to cause harm to BlackRock or any person. Rather, we write to hold a mirror up to you and show you what it’s like to be a person with an under-represented identity at your firm. We urge you to take action to address the systemic discrimination that under-represented groups continue to face at your company.

On Thursday February 4, 2021, the BlackRock Global Head of Human Resources sent a firm-wide memo in response to Essma’s publication where he stated, “The behavior as described in these reports is not what BlackRock stands for. It is not who we are.” We strongly disagree with this statement as it completely disregards the experiences of underrepresented employees.

This is who BlackRock is at this time.

This may not be what BlackRock strives for, but this is where you are now. BlackRock’s culture will only change through definitive action by its leadership, and the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it exists.

We believe that BlackRock is capable of doing better.

We write this letter because we believe that BlackRock must and is capable of doing better. But change is not easy and requires investment and making tough decisions. The road to doing better starts with these steps:

  1. Conduct a risk assessment.

BlackRock must conduct an anonymous survey of all employees to truly understand the experiences of underrepresented employees. This survey must be conducted fairly and professionally and must not be used to retaliate against or intimidate the participants. An outside company should be brought in to administer and provide a report on the results. The survey should include questions to ask if employees have faced discrimination (as they would categorize it) on the grounds of their religion, race, gender, disability, and other aspects of their identities.

This assessment will allow BlackRock to identify how vast these issues are and inform next steps for your strategy. It is crucial that employees self-categorize their own experiences in this assessment.

2. Issue an annual Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Report.

BlackRock must commit to be a transparent company that does not hide behind boilerplate statements that it cares about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Instead, BlackRock should back up its words with action. In that spirit, we implore you to issue an annual Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion report that is made available to the public. The report must include information from action items 3, 4, and 5 as described below.

3. Assess and publicly disclose workforce diversity and average pay data broken out by gender and race.

Publicly disclose workforce diversity data broken out by gender and race, seniority level, average pay, and region. Disclose not only the data on workforce composition at BlackRock, but also data on average pay per demographic group per rank (e.g., report on the Vice Presidents composition in the EMEA region in terms of gender and racial representation and average pay per demographic group, such as Black women who are Vice Presidents in the EMEA region). This would be an expansion of your BlackRock UK Gender Pay Gap Report by including a breakdown of race and seniority level (Managing Director, Director, etc.) and reporting on BlackRock’s entire workforce across regional offices.

Then, set numeric goals within specified timelines to close gender and racial gaps in workforce composition and pay at BlackRock and publicly disclose these goals. Public disclosure will incentivize you to prioritize this area of focus and accelerate the process to close these gaps.

4. Assess and publicly disclose hiring, promotion, and attrition rates broken out by pay and race.

In addition, assess and report on the percent of promotions, new hires, and attritions each year broken out by gender, race, seniority level, and region. These numbers will be strong indicators of the culture at BlackRock; if people of color have higher attrition rates at the company, then this points to a culture problem based on race, if women have higher attrition rates, then this points to a gender-based problem, and so on.

Then, set numeric goals within specified timelines to close gender and racial gaps in these data points at BlackRock and publicly disclose these goals. You will not be able to close gaps in attrition until you address fundamental systemic issues at BlackRock. Therefore, assessing these data points is of the essence and will be key drivers in informing your diversity, equity, and inclusion strategy.

5. Establish an HR intake form through which all incidents can be self-reported, and mandate that HR files complaints as they are categorized by employees.

BlackRock must ensure that all reports of harassment and discrimination are documented, regardless of whether the person reporting is anonymous or not, and regardless of whether the report was made orally or in writing. To improve documentation of complaints, BlackRock should create a simple intake form for employees to utilize to report such incidents. Senior leaders at BlackRock should strongly encourage all employees to fill out this form regardless of whether they would like to pursue a full investigation into their allegations. Moreover, BlackRock should mandate that its HR unit file complaints or reports as they are characterized by the reporting employee. BlackRock must document complaints irrespective of whether a full investigation is pursued. BlackRock already has an alternative of this form; our suggestions here are to build on this tool and document incidents more diligently and according to the claims of the employee.

This will allow you to gauge how often incidents of harassment and discrimination are happening in the day-to-day work lives of your under-represented employees. Additionally, this form will democratize the HR process. In our own experiences with BlackRock’s HR unit, some of our reports were not documented as we reported them because the HR business partner may have disagreed with our categorization of an incident. For example, if we reported our incident as an act of racism but our HR business partner who does not share our identity disagrees, then that complaint would not be reported as a racism complaint. The current process creates a false picture of BlackRock’s culture.

Lastly, publicly disclose the number of complaints in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion report. As stated, public disclosure will incentivize you to prioritize this focus and dedicate the resources needed to improve BlackRock’s culture to drive these numbers down significantly.

6. Hire an independent firm to investigate the culture at BlackRock then develop a new model for HR and how the company investigates reports of harassment and discrimination.

The incentives in BlackRock’s HR unit simply do not align. A common phrase at BlackRock was, “HR is here to protect the company, not you.” When we file reports with HR, we meet with lawyers on the Employee Relations team who conduct investigations into our allegations, determine if there are paper trails or hard evidence, then seek to extinguish the existence of any evidence. These lawyers come to see us, the victims, as legal liabilities for the firm rather than seeing our harassers and bullies as the legal liabilities. Then, the lawyers seek to remove the legal liabilities (us) from the firm as subtly as possible. After all, this is their job: protect the firm.

This is why people of color continue to leave BlackRock in droves. The system is simply not built to protect us. It is built to protect the perpetrators of systemic discrimination. To achieve a fair investigative process, BlackRock must radically transform its HR process and hire external, objective voices who can strategize and help implement this transformation.

7. Make a public commitment to not sue, defame, or otherwise try to silence ANYONE who speaks out about the harassment or discrimination that they faced at BlackRock.

Make a public commitment that BlackRock will not legally pursue anyone who speaks up or attempt to silence them or retaliate against them in any way, shape, or form. Instead, BlackRock should publicly encourage current and former employees to speak about their experiences. Numerous employees have departed BlackRock because of the experiences they faced at the company, many which mirror our experiences. However, they received severance packages or financial settlements and signed strict NDAs that prohibit them from speaking their truths. If BlackRock is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, then it must lift these prohibitions and allow others to speak their stories. You must listen, take note, and use their insights as you strategize your culture’s transformation process.

8. Establish an Oversight Committee that will oversee these transformational shifts and monitor continued progress through the annual diversity, equity, and inclusion report as well as interim report-outs.

The Oversight Committee must consist of ex-BlackRock employees who left the firm due to experiencing racism and harassment at your firm. We experienced it firsthand and therefore have crucial insight on how to fix it. The committee must operate with full transparency to the public and publish at minimum quarterly progress reports. Mr. Fink, it is crucial that you sit on this committee, and so will we. The reality is that BlackRock has a “yes-man” culture, one where many senior leaders paint a rosy picture of what the firm’s culture is like and shy away from bringing up difficult yet necessary conversations on the firm’s flaws. As such, this Oversight Committee is critical to understand the true happenings at BlackRock.

Mr. Fink, as of today February 18, 2021, over 470,000 individuals have viewed our publications collectively. Our narratives were covered in BusinessInsider, FundFire, MuslimGirl, and CollectiveAudience. Over 8,000 individuals have signed our petition urging you to take definitive action. This is a pivotal moment, not only for BlackRock, but for Wall Street altogether.

You lead the largest investment firm on Wall Street and are a crucial player in global capital markets. You can use this opportunity to illustrate exemplary leadership, then encourage other industry leaders and CEOs across sectors to follow. You have a monumental opportunity to lead by example, to join us in saying “enough is enough,” and to change BlackRock’s trajectory toward a brighter, more inclusive, more equitable future.

The world is watching, Mr. Fink. What will you do?

In Peace and Power,

Mugi N. Nguyai & Essma Bengabsia

Former BlackRock Analysts

muginguyai@protonmail.com | essma.bengabsia@protonmail.com

Philosophy, Poetry, Prose. Focused on bringing a shining light to the dark corners of our modern world