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Netflix employees call for accountability

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Netflix has been answering public criticism about the comedian Dave Chappelle's latest comedy special, and it also faces dissent from inside the company. Netflix employees have planned a walkout for tomorrow. This is all because of the way Chappelle talks about transgender people in his special "The Closer." Zoe Schiffer has been following this developing story for The Verge.

Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

ZOE SCHIFFER: Thank you so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: So even before tomorrow's walkout, Netflix has already disciplined some employees and fired one person who is a leader of the Trans Employee Resource Group. Tell us about what happened there.

SCHIFFER: Yeah. Right after the special came out, we had a trans employee post a very viral tweet thread on Twitter, talking about her experience being a trans employee at Netflix and her disappointment in the company for supporting Dave Chappelle. This employee was promptly suspended. The company said it was because she tried to attend a director-level meeting that she did not have access to. There was a bunch of public outrage due to that suspension, and she was reinstated. A few days later, the leader of the Trans ERG, the Employee Resource Group at Netflix, was fired. And Netflix said it was because this employee had leaked internal metrics related to how well the special did to Bloomberg, although internally I'm hearing from employees that certain people are really disputing that claim.

SHAPIRO: And this controversy is only growing because this walkout is scheduled for tomorrow. And trans employees have released a list of demands yesterday. What are they asking for?

SCHIFFER: Yeah. So it's important to note that they're not asking that the special be removed from the platform. They're making it very clear that what they want is for Netflix to invest more in trans creatives. They want the Trans Employee Resource Group to be a bigger part of conversations internally when potentially transphobic content could appear on the platform, and they want all posters of transphobic content to be removed from the office so employees aren't confronted with it during their work hours.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting because this has been framed in many cases as a debate over cancel culture. And so what do you make of the fact that their list of demands does not include removing the Chappelle special?

SCHIFFER: Yeah. I think that the conversation has been a bit mischaracterized on Twitter, unsurprisingly. You know, employees have been really clear that what they want is an open conversation with executives. I am sure that there are certain employees who have asked and would love to see the special taken down, but I think they've been very careful to not ask for that because they want to frame the discussion as an issue with communication with Netflix executives, not an issue of censorship or hate speech in particular.

SHAPIRO: And what have Netflix executives been saying about this controversy?

SCHIFFER: They have really doubled down. They have made it extremely clear that they are standing by Chappelle. They are standing by the special, and they do not plan to take it off of the platform. They've essentially told employees, we're sorry if you're offended by it. We do not think that potentially transphobic content could lead to real-world violence, and we don't think that Dave Chappelle crosses a line in the special.

SHAPIRO: So how big a problem is this for Netflix, both the external criticism and the internal pushback?

SCHIFFER: I think we have yet to see. You know, we've seen at least one trans employee resign over the issue. We've seen many, many people get very upset. You know, the trans employee Slack channel has grown. It was 400 people when all of this started. Now it's well over a thousand.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Wow.

SCHIFFER: And we're expecting well over a thousand people to attend the walkout tomorrow. But I think we have to be careful to say that this is really a cultural problem for Netflix. We have not seen it translate into a business problem, although people on Twitter have been calling for subscribers to cancel their Netflix accounts. You know, Netflix is releasing earnings today, and I don't think we're expecting analysts to even ask a bunch of tough questions about this issue.

SHAPIRO: Do you think this is part of a larger cultural shift in Silicon Valley, where we're seeing workers at these giant tech companies, people who are generally paid well and given a lot of benefits, push back publicly in a way that they might have been hesitant to do a few years ago?

SCHIFFER: Yes, absolutely. I really relate this to kind of a worker-led movement that started in about June 2020, where companies were putting out external statements about supporting Black Lives Matter, the George Floyd protests. And Black employees in particular were coming forward and saying, well, that's not my experience at the company, and really holding their executives accountable for what they felt was hypocrisy. I think that we're seeing a lot of examples where companies that have put themselves forth as really progressive employers are now confronting the limitations of that message when employees themselves stand up and say, hey; you've fallen down on your mission.

SHAPIRO: Zoe Schiffer is a senior reporter for The Verge.

Thanks a lot.

SCHIFFER: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAMPION'S "MONTECRISTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.