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At BlackRock, New Accusations of Discrimination and Harassment Are Met With Contrition
Inappropriate questions, sexual harassment, racial discrimination: The world’s largest asset manager confronts an ugly past.
On February 1, Essma Bengabsia hit Publish. Her article, called “#MeToo at Blackrock,” went live moments later. An Arab-American Muslim woman, Bengabsia wrote that she was “sexually harassed and discriminated against on the grounds of my race, religion, and gender at BlackRock,” where she worked for nearly a year.
She quit her job as an analyst in the firm’s credit product strategy group after a human resources investigation into her claims yielded little action: a recommendation of counseling for one of her colleagues, diversity training for others. More than a year passed, and then Bengabsia went public.
BlackRock has in the meantime positioned itself as a leader of diversity initiatives in an industry fraught with racism and sexism. But some alums say their experiences at the firm did not live up to its public promises.
As part of a nine-month investigation, Institutional Investor spoke with 12 current and former employees, including Bengabsia, about their experiences at BlackRock.
They describe sexual harassment, from being asked what kind of pornography they prefer to being propositioned by their bosses. Black and Latinx employees say they were labeled as aggressive and unenthusiastic about their work. Some feel that they were given poor performance evaluations based on these perceptions.
“BlackRock is committed to building a diverse firm and an inclusive culture,” a spokesperson for the company says via email. “There are episodes recounted in this story that are appalling, and behavior of that kind should never take place at BlackRock.”
In 2009, BlackRock became the world’s largest asset manager after it swallowed Barclays Global Investors, the San Francisco–based firm that created iShares, at a cost of $15.2 billion.
BlackRock had a “bro culture” that was different than what Barclays employees were used to, one former staffer told Institutional Investor. They liked to stay out later than their West Coast peers. They worked intensely and drank a lot.
Six former BlackRock employees who joined via the BGI merger detail a culture shift that took place following the acquisition. Each spoke to Institutional Investor on the condition of anonymity, either because they had signed nondisclosure agreements or because they were concerned about how speaking out could affect their careers.
“There was a Wall Street good ol’ boy — that’s such a southern thing to say — machismo that permeates the BlackRock culture,” says another former Barclays employee who went through the acquisition process.
During the transitional period, Mark Wiedman — a BlackRock executive who would soon lead iShares — was tasked with helping integrate the two businesses. He flew to San Francisco to work on the takeover, where, on several occasions, he hosted dinners with BGI’s managing directors.
One evening, a female managing director says, she joined Wiedman and seven other men, one of whom also spoke with II, for dinner in a private room at a local restaurant.
At the dinner, Wiedman went around the table posing questions. He asked about attendees’ hobbies, then their children. “Mark was the new boss, and the purpose of these dinners was for him to spend time with the most senior leaders in the business,” the man who attended the dinner says.
And then came the shock.
“Boxers or briefs?” Wiedman asked, according to both the man and the woman who attended the dinner. When the woman didn’t respond, Wiedman singled her out, repeating the question, the two recall. The man, who was good friends with the woman, says he could tell she was uncomfortable with the question and didn’t want to answer it. She also remembers feeling uncomfortable with the question.
Another former female employee, who attended a separate dinner in another private room, recounts a similar experience. “He wanted people to share their stories,” she says. “Some [of the questions] were innocuous. Some of them bumped against ‘Are you kidding me?’”
She was at a dinner exclusively for female employees when Wiedman asked the table about their “weirdest dreams.” She remembers that some of the women were game for the question, whereas others, including her, were uncomfortable.
“For some reason, I only went to one of these,” she says of the dinners. “One was enough.”
Two women who did not attend any of the dinners recall contemporaneously hearing about them from friends in the office. “Mark Wiedman was pretty notorious for making inappropriate comments that were pretty cringeworthy,” one of them notes. “A colleague of mine who wasn’t a gossip said he’s an HR disaster waiting to happen.”
What made these comments more difficult to swallow was the atmosphere in the office at the time. Wiedman wasn’t just getting to know the new employees — he was perceived to be in a position of authority, with influence over who would keep their jobs and who would lose them.
“There was always this sort of feeling that you could be laid off tomorrow,” the former employee who attended the women-only dinner says.
“I deeply regret that I made any of my colleagues uncomfortable,” Wiedman said in an email when asked about these dinners. “Those comments were a clumsy and misguided attempt at building camaraderie that failed terribly, and I am sorry. I recognize that words matter and have worked since to have greater awareness of the impact of what I say. I am committed to working collaboratively to learn and grow and to continue to contribute to a more inclusive culture at BlackRock.”
Added a spokesperson for BlackRock via email: “Mark’s language at some of these events was wrong and inappropriate.”
All of the employees who spoke with Institutional Investor have left the firm. Wiedman, for his part, is now the head of international and of corporate strategy at BlackRock. He is still seen as one of chairman and chief executive officer Larry Fink’s potential successors.
The same cannot be said for another once-contender for the firm’s leadership, Mark Wiseman.
In December 2019, BlackRock told employees in an internal memo that it had let go of Wiseman — global head of active equities and chairman of the alternatives business — because he had violated the no-relationships-at-work policy.
A person familiar with the matter told II at the time that another employee, global head of human resources Jeff Smith, had similarly been let go for personal conduct, in July 2019.
“This is not who BlackRock is,” said the December 2019 memo, which was signed by Fink and Rob Kapito, the firm’s president. “This is not our culture.”
But some former employees say that this culture is exactly what they experienced.
A few years after BlackRock had fully absorbed BGI, a Black woman fresh out of graduate school began her tenure there.
In November 2015, just months into her stint, the woman joined her co-workers for drinks after work. Among those who attended was a man set to take over as her boss. He was married and significantly older than her, enough so that she was closer in age to his children than to him.
As they drank, he and another co-worker started to make comments about her backside and how attractive they thought she was, she tells II.
“As a woman, I’m used to a level of bad behavior from men and not making too much of a fuss about it,” she explains. “I was kind of like, it’s annoying, but whatever. And then when it got to be too much, I was [thinking], ‘Okay, you’re crossing a line. You need to stop now.’”
As the night wore on, her colleagues trickled out of the bar. Soon she and her boss-to-be were the only ones remaining. The woman planned to walk home, but she would have had to go through San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin neighborhood while drunk. When her future boss offered to share a cab, she accepted.
Before the two got into the car, he mentioned that he knew he was going to be her manager. “He said that it would be inappropriate for him to talk to me like this or for anything to happen after he became my manager,” she says. “I was like, ‘Well, it’s inappropriate now.’”
During the ride he complained that she had never invited him up to her apartment and said he wanted to come up to see it. “I’m just like, ‘Dude, what’s your point? It’s not going to happen,’” she says.
The next day at work, as her hangover began to wear off, the woman says she realized how uncomfortable the encounter had made her. She tried to reason it away. She sat down at her desk, which faced his.
Then he sent her a message.
The woman says he wrote that he was hurt that she had rejected him. “It was like all of this convincing myself it wasn’t that big of deal, and then [he] immediately confirmed that that’s exactly what was going on.”
She thought about reporting it to human resources but reasoned that it would be a “he said, she said” situation. A death in her family, coupled with the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, distracted her from the situation.
Although she says she had told her bosses she had to be away from the office for the funeral, when she returned, human resources came to her asking where she had been. She told them everything — about the funeral, the night at the bar, the times earlier in her tenure at the firm when she had felt discriminated against for being a Black woman.
Human resources launched an investigation into her boss’s behavior. But they left her under his management, and their seating arrangement remained unchanged. She recalls feeling uncomfortable when they worked late; she would move to another area of the office to avoid interacting with him one-on-one.
He worked at BlackRock until a mass layoff in 2016. According to the woman, he never faced consequences.
Another former employee remembers attending a dinner in 2017 with three others, one of whom was a vice president. As in the other incidents, they had been drinking and the topic of sexual interests came up.
According to the former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the vice president “was vocal about how his fetish was ‘n-word porn.’ He said he was just very enamored of Black people being able to build muscles so easily. . . . It was very clearly a racial fetish.”
The employee adds, “It was normalized trying to get people to talk about their personal lives in really revealing ways.”
A spokesperson says via email, “In recent months, BlackRock has taken a series of actions to enhance how we investigate reports of misconduct, and we outlined a comprehensive strategy to drive the behavioral changes necessary to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in everything we do,” adding that the firm encourages current or former employees to report misconduct so it can “investigate and take action when necessary.”
Around the same time, the #metoo movement emerged on social media.
In a flurry, alleged victims and survivors took to the internet and met with reporters, claiming that congresspeople, high-powered movie executives, and media company leaders had sexually harassed and assaulted them at work.
A sweeping account of the movement published by The New York Times revealed that of the 201 men publicly accused from October 2017 through October 2018, only three worked in finance. Two were venture capitalists, and the other, Sam Isaly, had founded OrbiMed, a health care–focused hedge fund. Isaly denies the allegations.
In the years that followed, several pieces were written on why Wall Street seemed to have escaped the wave of allegations. One theory was that the industry had already faced its reckoning back in 2003, when columnist Susan Antilla published her book Tales From the Boom-Boom Room: Women vs. Wall Street, which detailed sexual harassment that took place at Smith Barney and other brokers.
Another was that the industry’s culture of secrecy — with its NDAs and forced arbitrations — was enough to keep people quiet.
But for a generation of employees who got their start in the industry amid this culture shift, what was once considered par-for-the-course misbehavior at asset management firms simply was no longer acceptable.
Bengabsia, who joined BlackRock as a full-time employee in 2018, says she was “shocked” by her experiences there. She recalls that after she didn’t participate in a Christmas sweater party, a colleague said, “Why don’t you just be American for once?”
In another instance, Bengabsia says a managing director “mimicked and mocked” how she said assalamu alaikum, a standard Muslim greeting.
She notes that there was a dissonance between what was happening to her internally at the firm and the cultural reckoning taking place outside of it.
Following the publication of Bengabsia’s post on Medium and a separate lawsuit filed against the firm, BlackRock’s head of human resources shared a memo with employees that said even though the firm had not “found evidence of discrimination or harassment in these recent cases . . . we know that there are instances where individuals have not lived up to our principles, and when this happens it can cause pain.”
But similar feelings of dissonance emerged among some BlackRock employees — both current and former — when the company began to make posts in response to George Floyd’s death, the Amy Cooper incident in Central Park, and the Black Lives Matter movement heating up in the summer of 2020.
Larry Fink published two letters he sent to employees in May and June articulating plans to improve recruiting and management of diverse employees, to use the firm’s position as a fiduciary to advocate for racial equity and social justice, and to donate money for these causes.
His 2021 annual letter to CEOs also addressed race and diversity. “As you issue sustainability reports, we ask that your disclosures on talent strategy fully reflect your long-term plans to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, as appropriate by region,” he wrote. “We hold ourselves to this same standard.”
Six former and current BlackRock employees of color, including Bengabsia, tell Institutional Investor that this positioning clashes with their own experiences.
They report receiving less mentorship than their white peers, being called “unenthusiastic” about their work and told they were poor team players, and receiving poor performance reviews despite positive feedback from their managers.
“Sometimes you have to work twice as hard to get half of what they get,” a Latinx former employee says.
In one instance, a director told a Black, gay employee to “not be too flamboyant” and to not bring their whole self to work, this former employee remembers.
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests, Mugi Nguyai — who had joined BlackRock the summer before as a financial markets advisory analyst — began working with his peers to set up a panel on white privilege. He claims that they lined up speakers and had 300 people slated to attend, but two days before the panel was set to go live, Nguyai’s boss canceled the event because, he said, he wouldn’t be able to be there.
In the weeks that followed, Nguyai says, he tried to get the event back on the calendar, to no avail.
“I started being labeled as aggressive, disruptive, not fitting in with the team culture,” he recalls.
Following the 2020 election, Nguyai left the firm. In his resignation letter, he says he wrote that BlackRock was “the most racist place” he had ever worked.
Just months later, two things happened.
First, on January 27, Brittanie McGee — a Black woman who had worked at BlackRock from 2014 through 2020 — filed a lawsuit against the firm, alleging that it had discriminated against and underpaid her.
“She was forced to stand by as BlackRock gave her white male colleagues more desirable assignments, higher pay, and promotions while telling McGee — falsely — that she either was being considered for an opportunity or that BlackRock policy prevented her from advancing,” the lawsuit says. Her lawyers declined to comment.
The lawsuit also alleges that BlackRock’s now-former head of employee relations, Tara Williams, said “‘most managers at this firm [BlackRock] are failing’ at diversity and inclusion, including BlackRock’s CEO, Fink. Williams further described BlackRock’s failure at diversity as ‘pathetic’ and admitted that the problem was so systemic that it even infected HR.”
Second, Nguyai was put in contact with Bengabsia. “It was like fate,” he says now. Bengabsia had been looking for others to come forward alongside her, but many were concerned about their NDAs and the future of their careers. Nguyai, a Kenyan man, stresses to II that he doesn’t have the same fear. He says he can return to Kenya and find work should he need to.
On February 18 the two published an open letter to BlackRock, calling on the firm to address the “systemic discrimination that under-represented groups continue to face” there.
Hours after it was published, Manish Mehta, global head of human resources at BlackRock, sent a memo to employees in response.
“While we disagree with the portrayal of our firm in today’s blog post, we must acknowledge that there are former and current employees who have not experienced the culture that we aspire to at BlackRock,” he wrote.
According to the letter, the firm plans to expand its manager and employee training on behavior, conduct, and respect. In another missive, on March 2, Mehta gave more details about those plans.
The memo said that BlackRock is creating a distinct team within its employee relations department to “ensure focus and timeliness” when the firm reviews employee complaints. The company is expanding employee trainings, and will be tying performance reviews and the compensation process for managers to how they promote and deliver on inclusivity.
On March 9, BlackRock held a firmwide town hall on its broader diversity, inclusion, and equity strategy.
BlackRock shared its “key priorities” for diversity and inclusion in 2021, which include increasing senior female, Black, and Latinx representation; increasing overall Black and Latinx representation; and creating programs to attract diverse vice president, director, and managing director talent, among other things.
“Each of us has a role to play in promoting diversity at BlackRock — but it doesn’t end there,” according to a March 10 memo sent to employees by Fink and Kapito. “The follow-through, ensuring that BlackRock is a place where everyone feels valued, heard, and can thrive — that’s on all of us. We have no tolerance for anything less. We can’t serve our stakeholders — we can’t succeed as a company — unless we get this right.”
Now the industry waits to see whether the most important firm in asset management will live up to its promises.