GitHub Gender Bias Claims Show Startups Need HR Role Early

By Erin Coe | Human Resources, Venture Capital | No Comments

Law360, San Diego (March 18, 2014, 11:56 PM ET) -- A female GitHub Inc. engineer's tweets on Friday that she left the San Francisco-based technology company because of alleged gender discrimination should serve as a warning that startups can be especially susceptible to these claims, particularly if they focus so much on bringing a product to market that they put off implementing critical human resources functions, lawyers say.

Upon resigning from the online company, which hosts open-source and software development projects, engineer Julie Ann Horvath unleashed a litany of tweets on her Twitter account, claiming she had been harassed by leadership at GitHub for two years. "My only regret is not leaving or being fired sooner," she tweeted. "What I endured as an employee of GitHub was unacceptable and went unnoticed by most."

Horvath told the publication TechCrunch that she was accused of making a bad judgment by dating a co-worker and claims she allegedly faced a sexist internal culture as well as intimidation by the wife of one of the company's co-founders.

The company has responded by launching a full investigation, putting the co-founder at issue on leave and banning the co-founder's wife from the office, CEO and co-founder Chris Wanstrath said in a company blog post Sunday. He noted that work still needed to be done at the company, which has grown fast over the past two years and had been without an experienced human resources leader until January.

While gender discrimination and harassment claims come up against employers in all sectors, early-stage tech startups have unique cultures that can make them especially vulnerable to these types of allegations, according to Nixon Peabody LLP partner Seth Neulight.

"There aren't the same organizational structures and rigor with respect to employment policies at startups compared to larger and more established companies," he said. "Everyone is laser-focused on developing technology and software to get it to market, and there isn't the same emphasis at the early stages on the organizational process and policy. The HR function can be a victim there."

He also said startups often are driven by younger employees who work at a frenetic pace in close collaboration with one another, which can create a high-pressure environment.

"Whenever you have a situation where a lot of people are working long hours together, you are bound to have tensions that arise and frictions, and a whole range of human behaviors become magnified," he said.

In addition, startups tend to embrace an entrepreneurial spirit and may perceive the rules and structures that come with big companies as not applying to them, according to Roberta Hayashi, chair of Berliner Cohen's employment law group.

"Maybe it's an attitude that 'people at the startup aren't politically correct, but who cares?'" she said. "But the failure to recognize that things are not politically correct can also be a violation of the law."

Startups can try to reduce their exposure to gender claims by having written policies in place to show they're committed to a harassment- and discrimination-free work environment and by providing managers and supervisors with training to recognize and prevent sexual harassment, according to Hayashi.

And Silicon Valley companies should pay attention to A.B. 1825, a state law that took effect in 2005 requiring California employers with at least 50 workers to provide sexual harassment training to supervisors. According to Neulight, even companies with fewer employees would be wise to invest in training.

"Regardless of whether companies meet the minimum number of employees or not, it behooves them to do this training at the earliest possible stage," he said.

Startups also should develop an HR function early and empower someone in the company with influence over top management to administer policies and training as well as create a culture of compliance, according to Neulight.

"A lot of the factors that make tech companies more susceptible to claims can be ameliorated if they establish a culture early on that is inclusive so that people regardless of race or gender feel they are equal and so that any concerns they may have are going to be addressed and investigated in a timely manner," he said.

Startups sometimes make the mistake of assigning the HR role to a chief financial officer, chief technology officer or other executive who already has other high-priority responsibilities, he said.

"It signals that the HR function is not a priority," he said. "Startups really need to have a dedicated HR person early on, and it's something that needs to happen for companies to avoid claims."

By designating someone to the HR role, it gives employees a point of contact if they believe they have been harassed and don't want to go to their immediate supervisor or manager, according to Hayashi.

"It's not necessary to have to dedicate an entire HR staff or independent staff on the payroll, but a company should have a designated person who has access to employees so that if they believe they were harassed based on sex, race, disability or some other protected category, they can report it and know the company will take action to address it promptly," she said.

Startups should also be more aggressive about hiring women, according to Mark Spring, a partner at Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger LLP. Because most engineering students and employees are male, companies tend to be started by men with their former colleagues and co-workers, sometimes creating a locker-room mentality, he said.

"Obviously a company doesn't want to be accused of reverse discrimination, but it should take active steps to seek out qualified female applicants to increase gender diversity in the workplace," he said. "That would lead to women being more comfortable in a high-tech workplace because there are more women, and lead to men being more attuned to working around women."

--Editing by Kat Laskowski.

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