Sexual harassment and discrimination in tech start-ups is now being reported in the media. Described as a “bro culture” or “frat house” atmosphere, the behavior and conduct of many employees crosses the line from inappropriate conduct to illegal conduct. In many instances, the company founders participate or turn a blind eye to it. In a recent New York Times article, women in the tech industry described a hostile work environment.
Why are women in tech start-ups subjected to sexual harassment and discrimination? I see a number of factors that go beyond a male dominated industry.
(1) No HR Department. Typically tech start-ups run lean and don’t have a human resources professional on staff. There is no check on the behavior of managers and employees.
(2) No Policies and Procedures. Tech start-ups often lack employee handbooks. Many overlook the need for policies and procedures governing conduct and prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination. Anything goes, and it is often illegal.
(3) Founders’ Lack of Experience. Relatively young founders and managers have limited corporate experience. They are unfamiliar with steps they should be taking to ensure a respectful and inclusive workplace. Some founders may be unaware of state and local laws protecting employees.
(4) Lack of Hierarchy. With a relatively flat structure, there may be few boundaries and supervisors see themselves more in the role of co-workers.
(5) Limited Legal Budget. The founders often try to limit legal services because of budget. Lawyers provide advice, prepare policies and conduct training that helps foster a respectful workplace. With a limited legal budget, tech start-ups aren’t getting risk management services.
(6) Work Hard/Play Hard Cultures: With kegs in the lunchroom, shots after work and liquid lunches, some tech start-ups have a work hard/play hard culture that contributes to disrespectful and inappropriate conduct.
(7) Focus on the Product: There is a tight focus on attracting investors, positioning the product, market research and social media. Providing a workplace free of discrimination? Not so much.
(8) Lacking the Long view: With relatively young founders and many employees in their 20’s and 30’s, some tech start-ups may lack the long view. Many mature companies have made great strides toward gender equality over past decades. In these youthful companies, there may be no one in a position of power who has actually witnessed and appreciated these changes over several decades in the workplace.
All employees are protected by state and federal laws prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination based upon gender. Male and female employees in tech start-ups are entitled to a respectful workplace, free of harassment and discrimination. Employees may not be harassed or discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. Companies may not retaliate against employees for complaining about being subjected to harassment or discrimination. There are short time frames for filing complaints and employees who wait to find out about their rights may lose them.
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