Toxic Work Cultures are (Really, Really) Bad for Business: Tech Sector Missteps Serve as Reminders for Us All

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Rarely do we see an industry of professionals engage in misconduct as egregious as what we are seeing today in the tech sector. The intoxicating cocktail of power, money and prestige has combined to put many female professionals in emotional and sometimes physical jeopardy.

The harassment that females experience in this space is mind-blowing. It includes general disgusting comments, catcalls, and jokes, but goes much further. Scores of women have reported death threats and assaults unlike what we are seeing in any other profession. For example,

  • In 2013, Tinder vice president Whitney Wolfe left her position and sued the company after Justin Mateen—her boss and one of the company’s co-founders, with whom she had a brief romantic relationship—allegedly subjected her to sexually charged abuse and threats, which Tinder senior managers ignored. Just this month it was announced that Sean Rad, who allegedly stripped Wolfe of her duties because of her gender and as a form of retaliation, has been demoted from CEO—possibly in part because of his handling of this situation.
  • Earlier this year, software engineer Julie Ann Horvath—an advocate for women in the tech profession—left her position at Silicon Valley tech startup GitHub after she claimed that her work environment turned intimidating and hostile. Her allegations included claims that a male colleague sexually harassed her, and that the wife of the company’s founder intimidated her on several occasions.
  • Anita Sarkeesian, who works to expose sexist and misogynistic behavior in videogaming, canceled an appearance at Utah State University after receiving an email threatening the deadliest school shooting in history if Sarkeesian showed up. According to the Huffington Post, “The gaming world is now under a harsh microscope with Anita Sarkeesian and other female media critics being targeted for verbal and physical harassment, even rape and death, for expressing the view that the representation of women in video games is often disrespectful.”

These examples barely touch the surface with regard to the number of documented incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination against women in the technology industry.

Why Should We All Care?

According to a Harvard Business Review report, more than half of women that enter science, engineering and technology fields leave the profession after a few years. And most of them claimed to have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

These women are not only members of our families, they are part of our work communities. They are the women we are depending on to fill our open positions and create greater diversity in our organizations. They are the women who bring a new voice and perspective to the way we get work done.

And that “exceptional engineer” at that new startup who is sexually harassing and threatening his fellow employee today may be your next new hire. The sexual harassment problem in the tech sector is the sexual harassment problem for all of us.

Women deserve to be protected from this kind of mistreatment not only because it is unlawful, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Liability, High Turnover and Low Productivity: Not the Workplace You Want to Build

An organization that allows this kind of toxic environment to fester is a landmine waiting to explode. The risk goes beyond a toxic culture with high turnover and low productivity, and well into the world of legal liability.

In these environments, women are left without viable internal options, and must seek help outside the organization. For investors and business owners, allowing harassment to go unaddressed is a “bet the bank” kind of investment.

Harassment is not good for business. It doesn’t make employees more productive or creative. It doesn’t increase the value of the organization. It doesn’t make customers more loyal. It simply cannot be justified.

Addressing and Correcting a Sexist Culture

For tech companies—or any company dealing with the need for a significant culture change—quick action is required and at a minimum should include some key action items:

  • Identify organizational values (such as showing respect and treating people with dignity) and strive to ensure that everything your organization does is consistent with these values.
  • Create or bolster your policy against harassment and retaliation.
  • Get senior leadership support and buy-in; they will need to stand behind some tough decisions.
  • Empower the HR function to make important decisions.
  • Train management about how to spot and end harassment and retaliation—and how to how to handle complaints
  • Train all employees about the rules and expectations
  • Have a process in place to investigate complaints promptly, fairly, and thoroughly
  • Hold employees accountable for violating the rules and if necessary terminate their employment.

And for all organizations, keep in mind some very important lessons that flow from the tech sector’s problems:

  • Don’t assume that your employees know the rules or know when their conduct crosses the line.
  • Don’t assume that young workers know better—millennials may need extra attention.
  • Don’t assume that the exceptional new employee you hired away from a hot new start-up is going to seamlessly blend into your carefully established, respectful culture. Chances are they may need more than a little fine-tuning.

Using Our Role as E&C Professionals Make a Difference

"Don’t shy away from asking women and men in your engineering, technology and science related jobs how it’s going—and be prepared to respond appropriately if their responses are not glowing."

While the tech sector may serve as an exaggerated example of modern day sexual harassment, the reality is that it still exists in the workplace; this systemic problem isn’t theirs alone. Sexual harassment is alive and kicking, and despite size or industry, every organization is vulnerable to this type of misconduct.

As employers, it’s our responsibility to take a hard look at our own organizations and determine if this kind of conduct (even if it is not as aggressive or systemic) is creating a toxic work environment for employees.

Don’t shy away from asking women and men in your engineering, technology and science related jobs how it’s going—and be prepared to respond appropriately if their responses are not glowing. And when it comes to new hires, choose wisely and carefully.


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