- Some people of color at Yelp's Phoenix office said they experienced racism from hostile customers, as well as their own colleagues. They witnessed racist language, including nicknames and the n-word, as well as memes that mocked non-white clients.
- Sexism, they say, occurred too, both from customers and colleagues. "You can only be called a c–t so many times before it wears on your soul," one said.
- Business Insider spoke to nine current or former employees of the buzzy internet firm about the culture in its Phoenix office.
- These sources said they experienced a hard-partying and sometimes-exclusionary atmosphere, with some claiming there was drug use in the office and that employees engaged in a sexual act at a Christmas party.
- According to a Yelp spokesperson, the company has a "zero-tolerance approach to racism." It has pledged to do more to support non-white employees and has implemented changes including launching additional diversity and inclusion training.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
One of Yelp's Black employees says she was getting tired of the racist abuse hurled at her while working.
As a member of the company's inbound sales team, she was responsible for handling angry businesses that were listed on the online directory service, trying to sell them advertising even as they called in to complain.
"I was getting called the n-word every day defending the algorithm," she recalled, along with sexist and homophobic slurs. When she let her manager know, she was given sympathy, but little in the way of material support. The manager told her "don't let your last call affect your next call" — and sent her a BuzzFeed article of puppies dressed up in costumes.
Such verbal abuse from aggrieved customers was commonplace for the employees in Yelp's Phoenix, Arizona office who dealt with them, as was Yelp's failure to offer affected employees meaningful assistance, some employees say.
But, according to some current and former employees from Yelp's sales team, most based in Phoenix, it wasn't the only problematic conduct that many employees had to face.
Business Insider spoke to nine current or former employees of Yelp, who described a workplace that at times featured racist comments, inappropriate conduct, bacchanalian parties, a clique-y atmosphere, failures of trust in management, and drug use in the office. (Sources were granted anonymity as they weren't authorized to discuss their experiences.)
Yelp's Phoenix office housed much of the local sales team, which is the largest team but also tends to be younger and less experienced — and away from senior management in San Francisco. One source from another of Yelp's sales teams said they felt much of the problematic conduct would not be accepted elsewhere in the company. (The company's offices are currently closed due to the pandemic.)
In a statement to Insider, a Yelp spokesperson said that "we firmly believe all employees in our diverse workforce have the right to a safe and inclusive work environment, and take a zero-tolerance approach to racism." The company has introduced additional trainings and programs over the last years and months, including a new mechanism for blacklisting abusive customers. "
"Most sales reps at Yelp operate with the utmost professionalism and many have built thriving careers at the company," the spokesperson said in response to the allegations of a hard-partying culture. "However, as with any company that has thousands of employees, there are instances of violations to our Code of Conduct. We take these violations seriously, investigate any such reports, and take necessary disciplinary action, up to and including termination."
Racist nicknames and pressure to conform
Several Yelp employees from the Phoenix office said they experienced racism within the company, from comments by colleagues to perceived inequities in career progression, in addition to verbal abuse directed at them by customers — and Yelp is now experiencing a reckoning on the issue.
In 2019, a white employee in the Phoenix office used the n-word while with colleagues. A Black female employee believed it was directed at her, and immediately complained to their manager. (Another worker in the office confirmed they heard the racist slur, but said they didn't think it was directed at her. Another former employee said they were also told by the female employee about the incident the same day.) The white employee was pulled aside, and in response later asked the Black employee if she was menstruating. He continued to work at Yelp for several months, before being let go for attendance reasons, two sources said.
A Yelp spokesperson said they had no record of the incident being reported to HR, but using the n-word would be grounds for an employee to be fired.
In 2017, a manager in Phoenix circulated a racist meme on a company email list that mocked the names of non-white people shown on a TV news broadcast, using the n-word to do so, according to a former employee who shared a copy of the meme. That manager was demoted, but not fired, and the employees who reported him had to continue to work with him for two years.
The spokesperson said that the company launched additional diversity and inclusion training in response to that incident, and that the manager would have been fired if it happened today.
A female Black former employee said she was asked if they knew what "reggin" was by a colleague — the n-word spelt backwards. (Yelp said that the two employees discussed the matter between themselves after the Black employee talked to HR, but that there should have been additional HR involvement.) Some employees referred to another Black employee as "Aunt Jemima," sources said. (Yelp said an employee was fired over the nickname.)
Former and current employees said that racist memes and videos would sometimes circulate on the company's email groups, and some employees on the sales team repeatedly joked about the names or accents of non-white customers. They were "internally mocking them … 'what's that kind of name … that's ghetto, why would you ever name your kid that?,'" one former employee said. "Almost everything you could think of." (One source said they reported this behavior to HR, while others said it went unreported. Yelp said it had no record of that complaint but has, at least at one point, fired an employee for using "racially offensive language.")
Other racist behaviors were less explicit, sources say. Some employees of color say they felt pressure to change their appearance or mannerisms to fit in at the organisation, they said. One Black manager from another office said she "completely morphed into a sorority-esque" style to conform. "I was told to basically not act a certain way, and act like specific white managers," said another.
A third Black employee from another office said they felt that pressure, and that it was also present at other companies they had worked at. " I wouldn't lie to you and say I'm 100% of myself at work, or 90%, or 80% … certain things in Black culture that's comfortable to me, some parts … that expressing in an office is not considered professional."
Some sources in Phoenix and Chicago said managers were historically given little training on diversity and inclusion, with some white managers seemingly not knowing how to manage Black employees. Multiple sources said they believed attrition at Yelp of non-white employees was higher than white employees. (Yelp disputed this, saying attrition for white and non-white employees in 2019 was similar.)
A current employee said: "[The] biggest thing is we need internal training when someone is going to be a manager … not just have their team sell well, but also diversity on top of that … a lot of people just don't know how to be managers."
"Yelp provides mandatory harassment training to all of its employees, and in recent years we've expanded that training to focus on Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging," the spokesperson said. "We've also recently introduced mandatory company-wide training that focuses on systemic racism and institutional bias to help all employees build awareness, knowledge and skills that are needed to enable the change that Yelp is committed to seeing in the workplace. This training is focused on educating all employees on systemic racism, the differences between equity and equality, and biases, particularly unconscious and institutional bias."
'They treat you like a piece of ass'
Several sources said they encountered sexist behavior at Yelp's Phoenix office, with some women saying they were judged on their appearances.
"They treat you like a piece of ass," according to one former employee, who said that some male employees would refer to office newbies as "fresh meat." Another claimed that "tenured reps [would] pull up the photos of rookies or new hires to rank them for lack of a better term," and felt there was a "boys club mentality when it came to promotions" in Phoenix. (Yelp said an employee who rated female colleagues' appearances was fired.)
Several sources said some employees would make comments about female colleagues' bodies (which were not always reported to HR). A former employee said she believed she received preferential treatment because of her appearance, "a luxury as an attractive woman."
"This behavior is not welcome at Yelp, violates our Code of Conduct, and does not reflect our culture or values," Yelp's spokesperson said. "When it's reported, we investigate and take disciplinary action, usually resulting in termination of employment."
Relationships between managers and their direct reports, despite being prohibited, were apparently common. Several sources said it felt like people were demoted on a monthly basis for breaking the rule, and there was even a term used among some employees for the periodic results of these illicit trysts: "Yelp babies."
"Romantic relationships between managers and employees in their supervisory line are also prohibited. To the extent such a relationship arises, the manager is required to notify HR," Yelp's spokesperson said. "HR evaluates these situations and takes appropriate action on a case-by-case basis, which can range from modifying the reporting structure or taking disciplinary action such as demotion or termination of the manager."
Constant partying that bled into the workplace
In May 2014, the senior managers in Phoenix were out of the office to attend a manager summit. Rank-and-file employees took the opportunity to let loose.
Former employees said that workers started drinking early in the morning, ripping shots at their desks, and partying in the workplace. "It was the biggest blowout," one source said. "Everyone just lost their mind." Several employees were fired over the incident.
The incident was illustrative of what some sources called Yelp's hard-partying sales culture, in which some employees said they felt pressured to drink to avoid being cut out of support networks at work — the lines between work and play were often blurred, drugs were sometimes consumed in the office, and workers sometimes caused havoc in public.
Yelp's spokesperson said: "Most sales reps at Yelp operate with the utmost professionalism and many have built thriving careers at the company lasting years, with some elevated to leadership and executive roles. However, as with any company that has thousands of employees, there are instances of violations to our Code of Conduct. We take these violations seriously, investigate any such reports, and take necessary disciplinary action, up to and including termination."
In 2016, some Yelp managers en route to a manager summit in Phoenix got drunk and rowdy on a flight, prompting a complaint from another passenger to CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and a subsequent dressing-down, and further firings, a spokesperson confirmed.
At a Christmas party later that year at a hotel in Phoenix, three sources familiar with the matter said two employees engaged in a consensual sex act in which one penetrated the other with their fingers in public. Another employee apparently recorded it, and workers shared the footage around the office. "She was not happy about it," said one source who said they saw the video. Yelp said it had no record of the incident, and that it would potentially have led to terminations. (In another similar incident, an employee in the San Francisco office was surreptitiously videoed masturbating in an office bathroom, and that video was also shared around, according to several sources. Yelp again said it had no record of this incident.)
And in 2018, elite employees attending the company's annual "Presidents Club" event for top salespeople at a luxury resort partied loudly and constantly, prompting further complaints from other guests and angry reviews left on TripAdvisor about them. (An employee involved faced disciplinary action and was ordered to stop drinking at company events, Yelp said.)
"It is a corporate fraternity. It is a lot of kids straight out of college, where it's very hyper-sexualized, it breeds a lot of self-confidence, and a certain cocky mentality that basically dehumanizes others," a former employee from Phoenix said. "It's very much a work-hard-play-hard [culture] … corporate-sponsored going out, and drinking parties at Yelp are always full of binge-drinking and drugs."
Multiple sources said they believed this contributed to a clique-y atmosphere at the office, in which workers felt pressured to conform, and to party. The results could be racially exclusionary and bleed into the workplace, they said.
"It's a country club, it's a boy's club — if you golf, you're good," one said. Another, from the Chicago office, said that white colleagues received additional training and support given to white colleagues that they didn't receive. "Why did I not get these cheat codes?" she asked. "Is it because I don't go out with you guys on the weekend?"
Sources told Business Insider that some Phoenix sales employees would sometimes visit strip clubs together. These weren't official Yelp-approved events, but they said there was a "grey area" in which professional outings and casual get-togethers would blur together. "That's the thing about Yelp, work-sanctioned events and non-work sanctioned events look very similar," a former employee said.
There was also visible drug use, according to some sources, both at company events and in company bathrooms in Phoenix. They claim that cocaine, MDMA, and other party drugs circulated. One former employee "had a director ask someone directly in front of me if they could be their Adderall hookup." (Yelp said this director was fired.) Another said there was a female sales rep who wore a vial containing cocaine around her neck in the workplace. (Yelp said it had no records of this.)
One former employee said there was little done to crack down on drug use: "Revenue forgave everything." Yelp disputed this, saying that it would terminate employees for drug use during work.
"Sexual misconduct and the use of illicit drugs or alcohol during work violate our Code of Conduct," the spokesperson said. "While most reported cases of drug or alcohol use during work do result in terminations, there have been instances where an employee has expressed their desire to seek help. In those situations, we have provided support with resources to get the employee the help they needed and the employee remained with the company following completion of a rehab program. We are committed to the safety and well being of all our employees both in and out of the workplace, and will support them in whatever ways we can."
Yelp has struggled to deal with racist customers
Not all of the racism current and former employees say they experienced was internal. In the face of racist verbal abuse from customers, some employees of color said they adopted nicknames or shorten their names, or remove their photos from their email signatures, in an attempt to avoid further harassment.
The abuse on the phone calls could be racist, sexist, or both: some white female employees also said they received inappropriate calls. Yelp's managers were typically sympathetic, but didn't offer much in the way of training for handling such calls or more significant support beyond sympathy and platitudes about "mental toughness," sources said.
"When I had a tough day on the phone, they would literally take me to a bar for drinks … there was no debriefing, or how to de-escalate … you either have nerves of steel, or don't take it personally," said one former employee. Another said: "'I've personally witnessed people crying in the bathrooms more times than I can count."
At a recent meeting with employees, Yelp's CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said he didn't know about the degree of verbal abuse that employees faced from customers, and the company is devising a system to ban problematic businesses from the platform. One source who was present said they "can't believe" that Stoppelmann didn't know about the issue prior to recently.
The new mechanism to blacklist abusive clients is part of a swathe of reforms and initiatives by Yelp in the wake of this summer's Black Lives Matter protests. "We firmly believe all employees in our diverse workforce have the right to a safe and inclusive work environment, and take a zero-tolerance approach to racism. We have put a system in place to report hate speech directed at our employees by current and prospective clients, and will refuse to do business with those clients. We are also expanding the ways in which employees can report discrimination or harassment internally," a spokesperson said.
"While some actions are more recent, we have always taken seriously any incidents involving employees' use of racially or sexually offensive language. Discriminatory language and hate speech violate our Code of Conduct. When incidents like these are reported, we investigate and take disciplinary action, usually resulting in termination of employment."
But such changes come too late for some former employees. As a white female former employee who also dealt with angry customers said: "You can only be called a c–t so many times before it wears on your soul."
Yelp promises to do more
After the killing of George Floyd by police officers sparked a nationwide reckoning over racism and police brutality earlier this year, Yelp pledged to do more to combat systemic racism. It made a $500,000 donation to the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund while building tools to help support Black businesses. Internally, CEO Jeremy Stoppelman has embarked on a "listening tour" to discuss issues with employees of color.
The response has been mixed. One current Black employee said they were heartened by the changes, and felt that it was well-intentioned and moving in the right direction. Others were more critical, labelling it PR "fluff" and calling for stronger structural changes at Yelp. (Yelp's initial misspelling of Breonna Taylor's name in a memo also frustrated employees.)
"It's bullshit that they're putting on this face and saying they support Black Lives Matter and people of color, but internally none of their systems are set up to support them," one former employee said.
"We released a statement in June outlining our commitment to support our Black colleagues, stand against racism and injustice in our communities, and lay the groundwork for change that is long overdue," Yelp's spokesperson said. "As part of that commitment, we looked inward and listened to our employees. Our CEO and COO conducted a series of listening sessions attended by many of our Black employees so we could learn about their experiences, and we have since taken action to ensure that we make the change we want to see in the world, here at Yelp."
"In the following weeks and months, we built on existing diversity task forces within the company and implemented a new diversity task force with our CEO, COO and CFO, to help prioritize and address the systemic changes we need to make across the company. These task forces are beginning to yield progress and accountability in our approaches as we look to create meaningful change, and establish processes around career pathing and other disparities across gender and ethnic groups."
According to data published by the company in late 2019, 55.1% of Yelp's overall workforce is white, while 11.4% is Black. Of Yelp's leadership, 67.4% is white and 4.8% is Black.
Some Black employees at the company said they felt unsupported, with the onus placed on them to make changes. "No-one would stand up … if I'm the only person speaking up, saying this is unfair, I'm the angry Black woman," one former employee said. "That's what I become.'"
"Pay me more if I'm going to do this much more work … if you're asking me to take time away from producing here, and put that much more time producing at another place … I'm not being paid for it," added a second, current employee. "Whenever there's a Black issue, they expect Black people alone to fix it."
Some employees felt the work environment impacted their mental health
Many sources — including those working in Phoenix and elsewhere — were positive about at least parts of their experiences at Yelp.
One current employee said they enjoy working at Yelp, citing the help the company gives to businesses. Several cited the connections they made with colleagues and friends. "They do hire very good people … it's just who they choose to put in the leadership positions," one said. And others cited the lessons they learned at the company about businesses and sales at the company as being incredibly valuable, and teaching them "grit."
"It's a great way to get into sales, and to eventually move your game up and do higher-level sales … [I] made some of the best friends of my entire life there," a former employee said.
Still, multiple sources felt that working at Yelp had significantly affected their mental or physical health.
By her last month at Yelp, one Black former employee from Phoenix said she was vomiting every Monday morning, "to the point I thought I was pregnant, because I had so much physical dread," and was taking anti-anxiety medication for the first time.
Another white former employee said she had to switch onto a new antidepressant at a higher dosage, "started binge-eating … gained 40 pounds in a month," drank heavily, and felt sick with fear about going into the office.
"For me [the mental health impact] was negative, because I always felt ostracized and like I didn't belong … because I was an African American … [I] had to do things different just to be seen on an equal playing field, and it was just never gonna happen," said a third former employee.
And three others said it warped their sense of what is a "normal" office environment: "Yelp destroyed my ability to pick a healthy office culture … I seem to find myself in even more toxic industries being abused by even more powerful people not realizing that those standards should be normal, not a luxury, and it doesn't make me weak to walk away from toxicity," one said.
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