Racially insensitive public comments are generally rare among top tech executives, and you definitely don't expect to hear them coming from someone like LinkedIn's HR chief.
Yet the social network's svp of global talent organization, Pat Wadors, elicited quite a bit of backlash overnight after using the word "mulatto" in a Fortune interview without apparently recognizing that the term for biracial people is generally considered antiquated and racist.
Ironically, the comments came in an interview about LinkedIn's annual workplace diversity report, which analyzes the company's progress on achieving diversity goals, both racially and in gender balance.
Discussing why diversity is important to her, Wadors (who is white) said the following to Fortune's Stacy Jones:
"Me, personally, I'm an introvert, a woman—I have dyslexia and a daughter with an intellectual disability and mixed family relations. My niece is mulatto; two of my sisters married black gentlemen," she said.
The comment, though relatively buried 17 paragraphs into the story, circulated widely on Twitter throughout the evening:
— EricaJoy (@EricaJoy) October 19, 2016
The fact that LinkedIn's head of HR calls people like me mulatto and doesn't understand the problem with that makes me all sorts of angry pic.twitter.com/F1WKzer2o3
— Megan Anctil (@megsa_) October 19, 2016
FYI, LinkedIn's color gap isn't "room for improvement", and their HR VP using "mulatto", isn't just "some baggage". They are serious issues. https://t.co/FTetUfVxLO
— Brian V. Hughes (@brianvhughes) October 19, 2016
In a follow-up email conversation, Fortune asked LinkedIn about Wadors' word choice, and received the following reply:
"There are so many areas where we really have an opportunity to drive progress, in our actions and our words," LinkedIn spokeswoman Crystal Braswell told Fortune.
Adweek has reached out to LinkedIn this morning for further response about whether Wadors could face disciplinary action for her comments and whether this kind of controversy could undermine the company's progress toward its diversity goals. We will update this story as soon as we hear back from LinkedIn.
While the word "mulatto" is used openly and without social stigma in some countries, in America it is generally seen as offensive and hearkening back to the historic oppression and marginalization of African Americans. The term, meaning a child of black and white parents, was an official U.S. census category for race until 1930, but today "mixed race" and "biracial" are considered more appropriate terms for someone with a multi-ethnic background.
As for LinkedIn's diversity report, the focus of Wadors' interview, it shows there's still room left for improvement.
LinkedIn's global staff is 54 percent white, 36 percent Asian, 5 percent Latino and just 3 percent black. While the overall staff is moderately well gender balanced for a tech company—58 percent male, 42 percent female—its tech team remains 80 percent male, highlighting the ongoing challenge of Silicon Valley corporations in recruiting women into tech roles and retaining them.