World

In Brazil, Firms Sought Black Workers. Then LinkedIn Got Involved.

RIO DE JANEIRO — In February, a think tank in São Paulo was looking for a financial coordinator. The job was remote, the work was part time and, the post on LinkedIn said, Black and Indigenous candidates were preferred.

For Brazil, the ad was innocuous. Many Brazilian companies have started to explicitly seek out Black and Indigenous workers to diversify their ranks, a step to reverse the deep inequality that has racked the country since the area was first settled centuries ago.

Then LinkedIn, which is dominant in Brazil, removed the listing, setting off a debate over why a company based in California should be controlling how a country in South America deals with its racist past and present. Over the next month, dozens of large companies protested, federal prosecutors opened inquiries and activists sued.

This past week, LinkedIn reversed its stance. The company, which is owned by Microsoft, said it had learned from the experience in Brazil and changed its global policy to allow job listings that explicitly pursue candidates who are “members of groups historically disadvantaged in hiring.”

The case was the latest illustration of how a handful of American tech companies exert enormous influence in foreign countries, enforcing global policies that often clash with those cultures or bring strife, abuse or other unintended consequences.

“There are a lot of pros to global connectivity that I would hate to give up,” said Eileen Donahoe, a former Obama administration official who now studies global digital policies at Stanford University. “But what’s coming to the surface in this instance is the underside of that global connectivity and global dominance.”

In this case, the backlash succeeded in changing LinkedIn’s rules, not only in Brazil, but also across the world. LinkedIn’s about-face shows how countries are increasingly pushing back against big tech companies and forcing changes in their policies, with global implications.

A European data-privacy law that went into effect in 2018 largely led to the worldwide proliferation of alerts on websites that ask visitors to accept “cookies,” or the tracking software embedded behind most web pages. The European Union is now set to approve new rules that could force tech companies to make their messaging apps work with rivals’ products, probably affecting people far beyond the bloc. And late last year, an investigation in Japan caused Apple to revise important rules for many app makers, while guidelines in Britain prompted tech giants to alter how their products work to protect minors better across the world.

Facebook’s headquarters in central Dublin, known as Silicon Docks for housing major international tech companies. The European Union is now set to approve new rules that could force tech companies to make their messaging apps work with rivals’ products, probably affecting people far beyond the bloc.Credit…Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

“Often the trend has been an actual law, or government regulation” forcing tech companies to rethink policies, Ms. Donahoe said. But with the LinkedIn case, she said, “This was more public outcry.”

Like many countries, Brazil has a brutal history of racism. From the arrival of the first European settlers, Indigenous people were slaughtered for hundreds of years. Brazil imported more slaves than any other country and was the last nation in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. And today, in a country where more than half the population is Black, Black people hold fewer than 1 in 100 corporate management positions, according to one study.

The fight for equality has gained steam in recent years, in part fueled by a surge of affirmative action programs. In 2020, Magazine Luiza, a Brazilian retail giant with more than 1,400 stores, announced that its executive trainee program would be open only to Black candidates.

The announcement ignited a national debate. Many conservatives in Brazil criticized the company, calling its policy racist, while many on the left cheered it on. “We were ‘canceled’ on social media, even by congressmen,” said Frederico Trajano, Magazine Luiza’s chief executive. Yet since then, similar policies in Brazil “have taken off,” he said. “The number of new initiatives is impressive.”

In the United States, companies including Google, Twitter and J.P. Morgan have introduced internship programs in recent years that are limited to certain minorities, framed as a way to create a more diverse pipeline of talent. But while there have been broad efforts to diversify the white-collar workforces at many American companies, U.S. law generally prohibits job ads that show a preference for a specific race.

In Brazil, several recent court decisions have upheld affirmative action policies, making the law more clear that companies can give preference to Black and Indigenous employees, said Elisiane Santos, a prosecutor in the federal labor prosecutor’s office. “It certainly is legal,” she said.

As a result, companies have become bolder. So when Laut, a research institute in São Paulo, posted its ad for a financial coordinator that “gave preference” to Black and Indigenous candidates, the move was hardly groundbreaking. It was more surprising when, three days later, on Feb. 28, LinkedIn removed the ad and told Laut, the Center for the Analysis of Freedom and Authoritarianism, in an email that the listing violated its policies.

Natura & Co., a Brazilian personal beauty company with 35,000 employees, later said that LinkedIn had also taken down its ad seeking a person of color for a management job.

The move by LinkedIn revived the national debate on affirmative action policies. LinkedIn was targeted by the left and seen as a champion of the right.

“LinkedIn’s stance toward Brazil is a colonialist use of the law to protect racism,” Pedro Abramovay, the former No. 2 official in Brazil’s Justice Department, said on Twitter.

LinkedIn’s official account responded, saying its policy applied to all users globally and prohibited job listings that give preference to, or exclude, candidates based on “age, gender, religion, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation.”

Raphael Vicente, a São Paulo lawyer and professor who runs an initiative to promote affirmative action policies, began gathering signatures from corporations for a letter protesting the policy. More than 40 companies signed on, including Coca-Cola, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Bayer and Unilever. “Such a policy can be a huge setback for the country,” Mr. Vicente wrote, adding that it would reverse the effect of the affirmative action programs that activists like him had fought for.

Mr. Vicente pushed back against LinkedIn after it pulled job listings in Brazil that sought Black or Indigenous candidates. Credit…Victor Moriyama for The New York Times

LinkedIn is dominant in Brazil for job listings. Brazil is LinkedIn’s third-largest market, after the United States and India, with 55 million users, or one in every four people in Brazil.

After LinkedIn took down the ads, the federal prosecutor’s office in São Paulo, the federal labor prosecutor and a federal consumer-rights agency all sent notices to the company requesting more information. Educafro, a racial-justice group, then sued LinkedIn, saying its policy was racist and violated Brazilian law. The group asked for more than $2 million in damages, which it said it would use for education programs for Black people.

On Tuesday, after The New York Times sought comment on its removal of the job listings, LinkedIn said it was changing its policy to allow such ads, as long as they are legal in a given country. “Getting this right is important and we’re committed to continuing to learn and improve,” the company said in a statement. It declined to comment further.

In 2010, a federal law in Brazil required companies to create “equal opportunities in the labor market for the Black population,” though it did not specify how. In 2012, Brazil’s Supreme Court backed racial quotas in public universities. And in 2014, a new law required that 20 percent of people hired through public service exams be Black.

Mr. Vicente said that when he and other activists began pushing affirmative action in Brazil in 2015, Brazilian companies still balked. “Now a global company has had to retreat on the subject,” he said. “This message to companies here is very clear.”

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