The first thing we can all agree on with Vernā Myers, the vice president of inclusion strategy at Netflix, is that email is terrible. “We all know email is evil,” Myers says jokingly, while discussing one of the streaming platform’s more informal policies to promote employee wellness during the pandemic. In August, a month of “no big meetings” meant, for her, the ability to actually take time off. And far, far fewer emails. Wouldn’t we all breathe easier with fewer emails?
But perhaps there’s more to Myers’ purposefully hyperbolic statement—a reason why she doesn’t like email, why none of us do—and it’s rooted somewhere in the painstaking dance that is professionalism. Email, in all its ceaselessness, doesn’t just bring new tasks; it brings emotional labor, the management of the feelings and expectations of others in order to get our jobs done. It’s a form of communication that is prone to miscommunication. Even in the longest email threads, there isn’t room for nuance, thoughtful exchange, or course correction. And the work Myers does every day at Netflix hinges on all of those things, as well as the ability for people to voice, uninhibited, their experiences at work. I don’t know anyone who feels uninhibited when writing an email.
To be quite honest, I don’t know many people who feel uninhibited at work in general, either—at least not women—which is why I’m talking to Myers in the first place. On InHerSight, Netflix has a score of 3.8 stars from women employees, 0.8 stars higher on average than S&P 500 companies we measure, and when we look at that data further, their support of women of color is remarkable. Women of color rate Netflix 4.2 stars, as compared to 3.1 stars in the S&P.
Myers is understandably excited to hear this news. Most companies, even global ones like Netflix, don’t have such demographic-specific employee satisfaction data on hand. “When you don’t have a lot of women of color, you have anecdotal information but you don’t have the statistical stuff that you really can use,” she says. Instead, she relies on her 20-plus years of consulting experience, interviews with employees, and how she, a Black woman herself, feels when she engages with the company and other leaders to both inform and gauge her success.
She can also look at year-over-year employee demographic data, and there are definite signals that Netflix is doing something right there. Netflix started reporting demographic data in 2017, and Myers joined the company in 2018, after serving as a consultant for the streamer. This year, Netflix revealed that for the first time since they began reporting their numbers, the Hollywood Reporter stated, “the majority (51.7 percent) of its worldwide workforce of 10,000 (up from 8,000 in 2020) are women. Similar proportions exist for women occupying director titles and above (51.1 percent) and those working in creative and corporate capacities (59.5 percent). Only in the technical departments are women a minority (37 percent), although they increased their share of representation in all these categories.”
That’s impressive, and enough to make one wonder: What’s happening, for women, for women of color, for people in marginalized groups, for everyone, at Netflix?
I spoke to Myers about how she’s approached diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) since joining the company, how they address problems, and what she thinks makes the streamer stand out. These four insights are the reason Netflix’s DEI efforts continue to remain two steps ahead.
1. Netflix’s culture runs on feedback.
When Myers started working at Netflix full time, it was just after the company had fired their chief communications officer Johnathan Friedland for using the N-word on multiple occasions. As a result, one of Myers’ first tasks was to interview all of the company’s Black employees to better understand their experiences. “A lot of companies would be like, ‘Can we make this go away and how quickly can we make this go away,’” she says. Instead, “what the leaders were saying was, ‘We missed something—can you help us figure that out?’ Then when I gave them the report back, they didn’t say, ‘What’s wrong with those people?’ They were like, ‘Oh, we’re not as good as we thought.’ And then they invited me to help bridge that gap.”
For Myers, this reaction was especially striking, considering she’d worked with plenty of companies like Netflix that had been intellectually committed to DEI, but when faced with their own demons, had balked. Those organizations “are deeply invested in the culture as it is,” she says. “The status quo. Because that’s the thing that’s allowed them to be successful thus far. It’s very hard for them to concede that if they changed this—if they let women make up their own mind about when they want to come back to work, if they really start succession planning or looking at promotions and answering questions about the overrepresenation of certain groups among those promotions—that’s going to somehow defeat their success.”
Feedback, Myers says, has remained a core aspect of Netflix’s culture throughout her time at the company. It’s one of the reasons the streamer is able to bounce back from inevitable pitfalls. That and a more realistic expectation of change. “One of the things we say at Netflix all the time is ‘incremental improvement,’' she says. “We’re dedicated to that and, ‘We’re not as good as we could be.’ So trying to keep a certain kind of humility in the work that we’re doing is extremely important because when you’re working with underrepresented groups, something could happen and all of a sudden the numbers are slipping and people’s experience is different.”
That happened, too—just after this interview took place in fall 2021. A month later, Netflix dealt with backlash over a Dave Chappelle special aired on the platform that included comments deemed to be transphobic. There were employee walkouts, and some trans employees were fired or suspended (and later reinstated). According to The Verge, the special “sparked significant controversy inside Netflix. ... Shortly after it came out, employees started asking pointed questions about whether or not trans people were included in the decision to air the special and where the company draws a line between commentary and transphobia.”
The situation also underlined a common challenge even the best companies face: translating policy support to widespread cultural change in support of different demographics. Despite Netflix having benefits like comprehensive transgender and non-binary-inclusive care in their health plans, parental leave for same-sex couples, an LGBTQ+ employee resource group (ERG), and more, there is still always work to do. That’s the nature of this kind of progress. Success is a long and complicated game.
“We are constantly trying to create a consistently good belonging, inclusive experience,” Myers says in our interview. “That, by far, to me is the hardest thing to do. It’s the consistency over a period of time while at the same time constantly dealing with society issues. It’s all connected.”
2. Netflix has noticeable representation at the top, and it shapes how psychologically safe employees feel at work.
Seventy-eight percent of women say it’s important or very important to see other women performing the same work as them, and there’s no doubt that a statistic like that translates to other underrepresented demographics. Being “the only” in any capacity is isolating.
Myers says when she started at Netflix she was the fourth Black VP out of 102 VPs. “Why do I know that? Because I interviewed every VP,” she says. That was in 2018. Now, “I think we have 15 Black VPs. And if we talk about women of color, within those 15, there are many. In fact, it could be the majority.”
This is the first time in her career that she’s experienced such a wealth of representation. “I’ve never been in a room with that many Black people who are in charge of things. I’ve never been in a room with that many women who are in charge of things.”
In addition to offering a sense of comfort, “it releases you to say whatever you want to because no one is going to say, ‘That’s what the Black people say’ or, ‘That’s what the women think.’ You get to differentiate yourself, which means you’re more likely to bring your unique perspective.”
And while Myers cautions that Netflix isn’t like that in every role and on every level (“We still have a lot of work to do.”), this individuality unleashes creativity and helps to uproot any preconceived notions held by the majority. “Once people start to see that intelligence is coming in all of these different formats, their expectation is that. They’re not surprised by it.”
There’s a certain psychological safety once representation breaks down these expectations, too. Underrepresented employees don’t necessarily have to seek out allies before voicing a concern or challenging an opinion because there isn’t a rigid hierarchy or one dominant group. “Having said that, if you’re a Black woman, you’re still going to think twice about jumping in on feedback,” Myers says. “It’s not like it takes everything away, but you’re not being countercultural when you do it, while at other companies you would be.”
3. Netflix has the right language, and they’ve had it for longer than most.
For much of the workforce, the murders of Black Americans and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 were a racial awakening—organizations hadn’t addressed such racism or violence before. Inevitably, when they realized a person can’t simply press pause on their identity when they log into work every day, the rush to understand the impacts of discrimination, bias, and the like was great. By comparison, Netflix was already lightyears ahead.
Up until that point, Myers’ time at the company, alongside the inclusion team, had been spent educating leaders and employees on the ins and outs of racism. So by 2020, “We already had the vocabulary,” Myers says. “It didn’t mean we had the deep insight that we do now, but we had language for it.”
Bao-Viet Nguyen, the communications director at Netflix, chimes in: “I think a lot of people heard the word ‘ally’ or ‘allyship’ in June of 2020, but it was already in place at Netflix. We did all of the foundation and education building leading up to it. And then when George Floyd was killed, it really clicked in a really profound way, while at other companies, they were starting from scratch. To have some resources to draw upon, some concepts to be familiar with, really helped during that process. People were just jumping in deeper to the conversation. It wasn’t like the conversation was new.”
There’s a power in naming things; having a definition, a title, helps to make a concept concrete. In Myers’ consulting days, when her DEI journey was greener, she says putting a name on different aspects of culture helped her to point out inequities. “I started to understand what community means—what an environment looks like, a holistic environment that supports your best self,” Myers says. “And how so much of culture goes unnamed. You deal with people who are like, ‘What culture? What are you talking about?’ because if you’re part of the culture and it works for you, it’s pretty seamless. It’s invisible.”
Privilege isn’t a dirty word, she says, but it’s part of naming an experience, and in one of Netflix’s global inclusion campaigns, they focused on aligning that definition of privilege with allyship. “The reason why I did it was because I want everyone to have a role and see that they are connected, and it took hold,” Myers says. “We, first of all, interviewed people, and they talked about what allyship looks like. … We did it in different regions. Little by little, we were able to break down even some of the cultural barriers to it. What allyship means is this [DEI] thing is for you. It’s not just for a few people or the underrepresented people. This is for you. You can activate your role. That drove an understanding around privilege. It drove an understanding around self-awareness and power and what is your responsibility.”
4. Netflix uses an ‘inclusion lens,’ and that impacts everything they do.
The allyship campaign is only one example of how Netflix has encouraged all employees to own the company’s DEI journey. A larger, yet seemingly more subtle, effort is something you’ll find mentioned in Netflix’s annual inclusion report: the “inclusion lens.”
The inclusion lens is essentially a mindset for decision-making within the company. Every project, every hire, every new show, every interaction, everything should be done with the awareness that changes might need to be made to be more inclusive. Myers explains the thought process: “An inclusion lens means: Who’s here? Who’s not here? Who am I uncomfortable with? Why am I uncomfortable? Who are my networks? How diverse are my networks? How many people have I hired or mentored in the last year and what do they look like? If I invited my besties to dinner, what would it look like? That kind of consciousness.”
Myers says there’s a temptation when any company has an inclusion committee or board for everyone else in the organization to shirk responsibility. “People could say, ‘Well Inclusion’s got it. I don’t have to think about it,’” she says. “But there are some things I did when I came in that I did right, and one of them was to say that it’s not on us—it’s on y’all. We are going to guide, we’re going to strategize, we’re going to teach, but everybody has to adopt an inclusion lens, which is, with all of the decisions you’re making—hiring, promoting, creating opportunity, choosing content, casting, all of that—with everything you do you must bring an inclusion lens. Because if you don’t, it’s automatic that it will continue to produce a status quo.”
Does it really work? Myers asks Nguyen to respond with his perspective instead. Yes, and it’s impactful. “For me as an employee, it’s seeing it reinforced in different meetings,” he says. “Seeing how different teams approach it and make space for it and intentionally add it to the conversation and the agenda. Seeing it reinforced and added to the conversation every day helps you add it yourself. It helps you question yourself about certain things. You talk a lot about the cultural shift, and to name one thing is hard, but it all adds up.” Recently, for instance, he says, the legal team tapped the Pride ERG during their recruitment process to help grow their network. “Just seeing that type of behavior throughout my experience and seeing them rewarded. The culture is a lot about what’s rewarded.”
Myers continues: “It’s got to get repeated. You’ve got to see it in lots of different places. That’s what makes you think, this is real. It was here yesterday. It was here today.
Then what happens is you have 10,000 people thinking about inclusion as opposed to 22 people on my team. It’s the only way I know to shift a culture is that everybody is holding on and moving it. Because if it’s just an inclusion team, no matter how amazing we are, it’s just going to keep falling back.”