Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg needs to Lean In on unpaid intern flap

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg needs to lean in, preferably to a microphone, and explain what the hell is going on with this unpaid intern controversy swirling around her non-profit working to empower women.

News that Lean In, an outfit founded by one of the richest women in the country,  is asking someone to work apparently full-time for six months for free is blowing up big time.

You’ll find stories in the LA Times, Slate, HuffPo, WashPo and pretty much any blog with a pulse.

It hardly takes someone as steeped in politics and as brilliant with messaging (as they call it) as Sandberg is to see that this looks, uh, bad. To review: Last week, Sandberg cashes in $91 million in FB stock. Then Jessica Bennett, a seasoned journalist and an editor at Sandberg’s Lean In organization posts on Facebook a fetcher for someone willing to work for free:

“Wanted: Lean In editorial intern, to work with our editor (me) in New York. Part-time, unpaid, must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus! HIT ME UP. Start date ASAP.”

Dude, that’s some bad optics.

Now, it’s not likely that there is an explanation that is going to make this all OK, but it could be that Bennett simply wasn’t thinking this whole thing through when she posted on Facebook. (Nobody has ever done that before, right?)

Sandberg could simply come out and say that (if it’s true). And she could explain that having someone work for a multi-millionaire-backed cause for free is ludicrous; and of course she would put up the dough to pay an intern for six months.

I’m figuring about $40,000 for pay and benefits for an intern living in New York would about do it. (That’s about .04 percent of what Sandberg took home last week. Just saying.)

For now the Lean In camp’s strategy has been for Bennett to throw herself under the bus. A follow up post from her on Facebook page explains that the free intern request wasn’t a Lean In request. It was her personal request.

“Dear What Appears to Be My Entire Facebook Feed:

Want to clarify previous Lean In post. This was MY post, on MY feed, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let’s all take a deep breath.”

Not that that makes any difference.

Sandberg could do her lieutenant a great service by clearing the air, even if an unpleasant odor lingers. It wouldn’t hurt her own image to come clean, either, given that her image is taking a beating on Twitter. (Note to Sandberg: It’s like Facebook, but shorter.)

Here, here and here, for a few examples.

I wondered earlier this year whether Sandberg was catching flak for her Lean In effort (which shares a name with her bestselling book) because her fabulous wealth has left her oblivious to working-class challenges.

By remaining silent, she risks reinforcing that impression.

So it’s time for Sandberg to step up to a microphone. If that’s too much to ask, maybe a Facebook post would do.

(Photo of Sheryl Sandberg by Mercury News photographer Gary Reyes)

 

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.