- Former Shopify employees say a noose emoji was discovered in their Slack system last summer.
- The emoji, plus a video that some felt was in poor taste, caused heated debate among workers.
- As the debate intensified, CEO Tobi Lütke changed a diversity-focused channel to be read-only.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Shopify, the Ottawa-based e-commerce platform known for the tools it offers to entrepreneurs and small-business owners, has dealt with some internal strife over its handling of racial and social-justice issues over the past year, former employees say.
Six former employees, some of whom left as recently as March, told Insider they felt that tensions came to a head in July, when they say another employee brought to people’s attention that an emoji depicting a noose had been added to Shopify’s
While Slack comes with a set of emojis built-in, teams using the workplace-communications platform can also upload their own custom emojis to use when chatting with their coworkers.
These former employees’ identities are being kept anonymous because they fear potential reprisals. Each left the company in the past nine months.
A ‘difficult’ discovery during a time of reckoning
The noose emoji’s discovery was noted in a Slack channel called #belonging, which was dedicated to discussions about diversity at Shopify. The employee who found it said they had been trying to find the emoji for “no” when the noose appeared, a former employee said. Four of the former employees who spoke with Insider said they saw the noose emoji before the company deleted it.
At the time, protests against the May 25 killing of George Floyd were happening across the globe, and many companies were having conversations about racial justice both internally and externally.
Two former employees said that the #belonging channel was often a place where social-justice issues and Shopify’s handling of diversity, equity, and inclusion were debated. Employees of color also invited allies to participate in the discussions.
The discovery of the noose emoji instantly set off heated debate in the Slack channel, and some immediately raised concerns about the emoji, saying they found it offensive.
“It’s obviously a symbol of lynching for Black communities, so to see that as a Black employee is just really triggering and really difficult,” a former employee who departed the company this spring said.
At the same time, the former employees said, some at the company defended the noose emoji’s existence, saying that it wasn’t as big of a deal as others were saying.
A Shopify spokesperson said that the company discovered the noose emoji had been uploaded as part of a package of images of popular knots.
A rap parody video posted — and then taken down
The noose emoji wasn’t the only time that Shopify’s employees of color had raised concerns about the company’s handling of DEI issues last summer. Also in July, a team at Shopify created a video called “Ten Slack Commandments,” a riff on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments.”
The video, which was shared by the company’s culture team, was intended to be a promotion of Shopify’s newly all-remote workforce. (The company announced in May 2020 that it would be going “digital by default,” meaning that all employees would be fully remote indefinitely.)
CEO Tobi Lütke tweeted a link to the video, saying, “I probably shouldn’t leak internal documents, but I mean.. come on, this is gold.”
But the video fell flat with some employees of color, who said that that the company’s riff on the song was rapped by a white man and did not feature any employees from underrepresented groups. Five former employees who saw the video said it did, however, feature emojis of a Black man and a woman wearing a hijab.
The original song was “about a lot of the trials, with the drug epidemic, that the Black community faced in the ’80s and ’90s and how that was used to destroy communities,” said a former Shopify employee who left in early 2021. But the Shopify version turned it “into this silly little song about corporate culture and corporate etiquette at a time when we’re telling each other to listen more to Black people.”
The company ended up taking the video down after about a week of internal debate.
Shutting down #belonging
Heated discussions over the emoji and the video continued over several days. Over the following weekend, Lütke, 40, changed the #belonging channel to be read-only, saying that the discussions had become toxic.
“I’ve been on the Internet for 25 years now and sadly I’ve seen what’s happening here hundreds of times: open and unmoderated forums can turn into echo chambers and those end up with extreme toxicity,” Lütke said in a Slack message shutting down the channel. “I’m deeply disappointed that this is your interpretation of belonging at Shopify. We appear to have forgotten that humans (colleagues!) are on the other side of our messages.”
He continued: “Shopify is fully committed to the ideas of equality of opportunity and belonging. There is some valid feedback here that should have been given in good faith directly to the teams. Unfortunately most of it is lost in the fundamentalism that has emerged. We’ve made sure that the right teams are considering the feedback and are taking action where necessary. I’ve put the channel on moderated status now to cool things down as this way of bad faith communications isn’t reconcilable with the code of conduct that everyone signed.”
According to a screenshot of the message viewed by Insider, people in the channel “reacted” with a slew of negative emojis to Lütke’s message — 49 with the “confused” emoji, 22 with the “disappointed” emoji, and 14 with a thumbs-down.
Former employees speaking with Insider said this only made them feel silenced and that management hadn’t done enough to address why the noose emoji was there in the first place.
They also felt that leadership’s actions conflicted with the progressive image that Shopify seemed to be projecting to the outside world. For example, Shopify has a landing page on which it promotes the online stores of Black-owned businesses.
During the George Floyd protests, Shopify leaders had said in internal communications that they wanted to make a bigger effort to listen to concerns from the company’s employees of color. In June, Lütke had said in a tweet that Shopify would be donating $500,000 to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, $250,000 to Canada’s Black Health Alliance, and $250,000 to Campaign Zero.
“You just told us you were willing to listen to Black people about this when they brought their concerns. You said that you wanted to do that as a company, and this is the response,” the former employee who left at the beginning of 2021 said.
About a week later, Lütke held a companywide town-hall meeting, but this former employee said it did little to answer their questions about management’s handling of the incident.
“They didn’t seem to think that they had done anything wrong,” the former employee said, adding that their impression was that company management thought those who voiced concerns about the video and emoji had “overreacted.”
A company spokesperson told Insider that “employees are encouraged to discuss diverse and sometimes competing opinions on matters of all kinds — and there are social spaces for them to do so.”
They continued: “If conversations violate our rules of engagement, turning from dialogue to derision, we may temporarily moderate channels in order to fully address sensitive topics in companywide forums, including leadership AMAs.”
They added that the #belonging channel is managed by Shopify’s diversity and belonging team and that all employees are now able to comment on posts. Shopify has seven employee-resource groups dedicated to communities within the company, and each has its own active Slack channel. It also has a channel dedicated to allyship.
Shopify’s business has thrived in the pandemic, growing revenue by 86% year over year to reach $2.9 billion for 2020. At the same time, per company filings, gross merchandise volume — or the total sales conducted on the platform — rose 96% in 2020 to reach $119.6 billion.
Former employees said the incidents with the emoji and the video were reflective of what they saw as shortcomings in how the company has addressed DEI as it has grown rapidly in the past several years. As of December 31, the company had 7,000 employees and contractors around the world. That is an increase of 2,000 people over the prior year. It has also announced plans to hire for more than 2,000 new technical roles this year.
As of 2020, Shopify reported that 2.6% of its workforce was Black and 3.3% was Latinx, while 4.9% was South Asian and 6% was East Asian. The report said 26.8% of the workforce did not specify, and 45.8% was white. In sum, 24.9% of its employees self-reported as being nonwhite.
Shopify also has a program called “Belonging Connector,” which is made up of 40 employee volunteers who promote the company’s diversity efforts “through multiway communication, perspective sharing, training sessions, and creating awareness about what it means to be a diverse and inclusive organization,” the spokesperson said.
“Our leadership is deeply committed to diversity, including the recruitment and support of underrepresented employee and merchant populations,” the spokesperson said. “Like any rapidly growing and scaling company, we recognize we have areas for improvement — and we are always getting better.”
‘Divisiveness cannot be tolerated’
Several weeks after the town hall, Lütke sent a lengthy email to managers saying the company should focus on staying true to its mission of helping entrepreneurs and avoiding “divisiveness.” In the email, Lütke said the company should not be thinking of itself as a family or as a government that can solve all of people’s needs.
“We will try our best to take care of the ones that ensure you can support our mission. Shopify’s worldview is well documented – we believe in liberal values and equality of opportunity. Sometimes we see opportunities to help nudge these causes forward. We do this because this directly helps our business and our merchants and not because of some moralistic overreach,” he wrote.
“We will always have compassion for team members in truly difficult situations. For example, those who find themselves suddenly becoming primary caregivers or those who are struggling with mental health issues. There are also second chances, especially for those who have been top performers before. Outside of those cases we need to remind everyone that like any other competitive (sports) team, it matters how you show up every day and contribute to the team’s success.”
He continued: “Beyond straight performance output, everyone that engages in endless Slack trolling, victimhood thinking, us-vs-them divisiveness, and zero sum thinking must be seen for the threat they are: they break teams. Teams survive and thrive on the actions of the collective, and the cohesiveness of the whole. Poor performance and divisiveness cannot be tolerated.”
Two former employees said they found Lütke’s email reminiscent of the one written by Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong in September 2020, which said that the company would not engage on societal issues “unrelated to our core mission, because we believe impact only comes with focus.” Coinbase offered severance packages to employees who did not agree, and 60 people took them up on it. The software company Basecamp also instituted a ban on political discussions in April, which led to the departure of at least 18 employees.
A Shopify spokesperson said the company was not trying to emulate Basecamp in its handling of political issues and that it welcomes discussion of current events.
“As Shopify is growing quickly with new team members joining every day, our executive team will often send company-wide messages to remind the organization of our vision for equitable entrepreneurship and to reignite our spirit of positive collaboration. This reinforces our need to work together in creating a future that unites, not divides,” they said.
Former employees also pointed to internal discussions about Shopify’s hosting of a donation fund for Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who was charged with killing two people at a Black Lives Matter protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. Some employees said the site appeared to be a violation of Shopify’s terms of service, but the site stayed up for several weeks.
Shopify did take down sites affiliated with former President Donald Trump after a group of pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol on January 6. It also took down sites selling goods related to the QAnon conspiracy theory.
“Shopify believes in making commerce better for everyone, and we take concerns around the goods and services made available by merchants on our platform very seriously,” a company spokesperson said. “Shopify’s Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) clearly outlines the activities that are not permitted on our platform. Products and content associated with Kyle Rittenhouse violate the hateful content category of our Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) and are removed accordingly.”
Lütke has written in the past about how he does not see it as Shopify’s role to police points of view, when the company was facing questions about why it continued to host Breitbart’s online store in 2017.
Lütke’s email warned managers to avoid “moralistic overreach” beyond supporting “liberal values.” But the former employee who left early this year feels that it is unreasonable for the company to expect it can be disengaged from social issues.
“If Shopify chooses not to think about how it is engaging with social issues, then it’s rife for abusing a lot of its employees in ways that it doesn’t understand, and clients as well,” they said.
If you’re an employee at Shopify and have a story to share, contact this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or via the encrypted messaging app Signal at (646) 889-2143 using a non-work phone.