Earlier this year, the “Google memo” – a 10-page document published by Google engineer James Damore – brought the issue of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley into the public limelight. While many news reports focused on only limited, attention-grabbing lines from the memo, it nonetheless forced tech industry insiders and outsiders alike to consider whether Silicon Valley has a problem when it comes to sexual harassment and gender discrimination.
Of course, this is not a new issue. Women have long faced disadvantages and subjugation in the workplace, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the federal government’s first big leap forward in recognizing that sex discrimination was (and is) a very real problem. Since the enactment of Title VII, new statutes and court decisions at the state and federal levels have further clarified men and women’s equality in the eyes of the law; yet, as the Google memo (along with numerous other examples) shows, women in many industries still find themselves facing what seems to be an inherent – if not endemic – pattern of discrimination.
For tech startups, recognizing, understanding, and addressing concerns of sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace should be among their top priorities. Even setting a company’s legal obligations and the potential PR implications of an event – like publication of the Google memo – aside providing a safe workplace that promotes gender equality should be a no-brainer for any company seeking to attract top talent and retain qualified and forward-thinking employees.
Promoting Gender Equality in the Workplace: Tips for Tech Startups
As a startup founder, there are many steps you can take to promote gender equality and prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. The following practical tips are generally applicable to most companies within the tech industry; however, before implementing any measures with potential legal implications, founders should be sure to discuss their options and obligations with their legal counsel.
1. Adopt Clear Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policies
All companies should have a comprehensive set of policies outlining the company’s stance on matters including discrimination, harassment, compensation, advancement, and related issues. These policies should be appropriate to the company’s size, industry, and organizational structure, and should provide clear guidance to employees at all levels of the organization regarding actions that will not be tolerated.
A company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies should be clearly documented, and they should be reconsidered and updated over time. Companies should also document their measures to communicate these policies to their employees. In the event of a discrimination or harassment lawsuit, being able to show that employees were properly-instructed regarding appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and practices can help mitigate the company’s liability.
2. Provide Initial and Ongoing Anti-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Training to Managers and Individual Contributors
In addition to publishing the company’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, companies should also provide adequate training to all employees. This includes both managers and individual contributors. While there are many commercial training programs out there, some are better than others, and company founders should be sure to have clear goals when implementing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training programs. Often, a customized training program presented by (or with the approval of) the company’s legal counsel will be necessary to convey the appropriate message and adequately protect the company.
3. Provide Clear Reporting Procedures for Discrimination and Harassment in Employee Handbooks
While company founders should strive for a zero-defect culture with regard to gender discrimination and harassment, they should also plan for potential issues to arise. Employees should be given clear guidelines for reporting discrimination and abuse, and it should be clear that employees who report inappropriate conduct will not face retaliation or retribution. Employees often choose not to report inappropriate conduct out of fear of reprisals. Any company that allows a culture of hostility to discourage reporting can face negative repercussions for both the initial harassment and their failure to provide appropriate protections for victimized employees.
4. Openly Encourage Employees to Speak Up Against Discrimination and Harassment in Appropriate Forums
In addition to providing confidential and non-hostile reporting procedures for specific instances of discrimination and harassment, tech companies should also consider providing their employees with appropriate forums to express concerns about systemic issues within the company’s culture. From human resources (HR) hotlines to town halls, when employees have an opportunity to have their voices heard (and when companies actually listen), they are far less likely to take drastic action that could harm the company’s public reputation.
5. Promptly Address All Reports and Indications of Discrimination and Harassment
When an employee submits a formal report or company leaders learn of a potential issue, taking prompt action can be crucial to mitigating any potential consequences. What constitutes an appropriate response will depend upon the specific facts and circumstances involved, and company founders should be careful not to take potentially-harmful action (or pursue a course of inaction) in the absence of advice from legal counsel.
Potential Consequences of Discrimination and Harassment for Tech Companies
When allegations of discriminatory employment practices or fostering a culture of sexual harassment come to light, the consequences can be both swift and severe. In the social media age, one employee’s allegations can quickly turn into national headlines. Even if the company ultimately wins a protracted legal battle in administrative proceedings or in court, much of the damage will likely already have been done. From the consumer response to a sudden lack of interest in the company’s open positions, accusations that appear to expose systematic or company-endorsed gender inequality can have long-lasting and pervasive implications.
If your company is facing allegations of sex discrimination or sexual harassment, what should you do? As we mentioned above, a prompt response is critical, but you need to make sure it is the right response as well. Deciding what to do will require a careful assessment of considerations including:
- Legal obligations – What are your company’s legal obligations? State and federal laws prohibit workplace discrimination (sexual harassment is considered a form of discrimination under Title VII), and companies must ensure that their responses to employees’ allegations comport with the law.
- Internal response – Are other employees aware of the issue? If so, your initial response may need to involve equal parts legal strategy and HR management. Employees should be assured that the issue is being taken seriously, and they should be given the opportunity to provide any information they may have about instances of discrimination or harassment.
- External publicity – If the issue has been made public, you will likely need to craft an aggressive PR response as well. When responding to allegations of gender discrimination or sexual harassment, companies need to try to control the narrative, but they also need to avoid making it look like they have something to hide.
Questions? Contact Jiah Kim & Associates
If you would like more information about the steps involved in adopting anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies and procedures, or if you have questions about your company’s legal obligations regarding Title VII or other laws, we encourage you to contact us for an initial consultation. To speak with an attorney at Jiah Kim & Associates, please call (646) 389-5065 or get in touch online today.
This blog post is written for educational and general information purposes only, and does not constitute specific legal advice. You understand that there is no attorney-client relationship between you and the blog publisher. This blog should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state.