Sexual Harassment Scandals at Tech Giants Bring Silicon Valley’s HR Problems to Light

Sexual Harassment Scandals at Tech Giants Bring Silicon Valley’s HR Problems to Light

Sexual harassment and sexism are well known problems in the US tech sector, as a survey of Silicon Valley women found last year, but a series of recent allegations involving three major companies has thrust those problems into the spotlight and is forcing the industry and the public to confront what last year’s survey called “the elephant in the Valley.”

After former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post last Sunday about her experience at the company, alleging a pattern of sexual harassment, HR misconduct, and management retaliation, the ridesharing startup launched an internal investigation and is hearing strong criticism from investors and employees. Uber’s critics are urging an overhaul of what they describe as a toxic and self-destructive culture that enables sexual harassment and misconduct toward women.

In a development that could compound the scandal, Recode’s Kara Swisher broke the news on Monday that Uber’s SVP of engineering, Amit Singhal, had been asked to resign after she reported that he had not disclosed to Uber that he had left Google last year amidst “credible” allegations of sexual harassment from an employee. Sources at Uber told Swisher that they had done extensive background checks on Singhal but uncovered nothing related to the allegations at Google (which Singhal still denies). Swisher also couldn’t find any outward indication that anything was amiss for Singhal at Google at the time, even though the company was, according to her sources, “prepared to fire Singhal over the allegations after looking into the incident,” but such action was preempted by Singhal’s decision to resign:

Sources said the female employee who filed the formal complaint against Singhal did not work for him directly, but worked closely with the search team. She also did not want to go public with the charges, which is apparently why Google decided to allow Singhal to leave quietly. He was also a well-regarded executive there, who was well liked by many I have spoken to at Google. He rose to a top job as SVP of search and has had a distinguished career as a technologist in Silicon Valley. …

You could not tell that there were any problems, though, from the outward behavior of both sides [at the time of Singhal’s departure]. When Singhal left, said sources, Google settled major outstanding grants he had, and his own goodbye letter read more like a retirement missive. More to the point, it gave no hint of acrimony between himself and his longtime employer.

Both Uber and Google are facing a backlash over these revelations: the former for hiring Singhal without uncovering what led to his departure from his last job, and the latter for allowing him to leave the company inconspicuously. On Twitter, ex-Googler Kelly Ellis, who allegedly witnessed and experienced sexual harassment while working there several years ago, took to Twitter to highlight how the “boy’s club” of tech executives hurts leadership diversity and makes it easier for male tech execs to get away with serial sexual harassment. Among her complaints related to this latest example: that tech executives often hire their friends outside of the usual hiring process, and after already lacking the necessary diversity to pick up on risks of misconduct.

Of course, sexism and other diversity challenges in Silicon Valley are not unique to Uber, Google, or any other individual company. This week the Guardian reports that a Tesla engineer has filed a lawsuit alleging that the company—a challenger to both Uber and Google in the race to develop self-driving cars—had ignored repeated complaints of “pervasive harassment,” paid her less than her male colleagues, passed her over for promotions in favor of less qualified men, and retaliated against her when she spoke up:

The allegations of AJ Vandermeyden, who still works at the celebrated electric car manufacturer, paint a picture of a hostile work environment dominated by men where inappropriate sexual behavior is tolerated and women face numerous barriers to advance their careers. … Vandermeyden said that when complaints arise at Tesla about workplace issues or inequality, the response is often: “‘We’re focused on making cars. We don’t have time to deal with all this other stuff.’” …

Tesla did not respond to questions about Vandermeyden’s claims, but said in an email that it “understands the importance of fostering an inclusive workplace that is reflective of the communities we call home” and recognizes “there is more we can do to promote diversity”.

“As with any company with more than 30,000 employees, it is inevitable that there will be a small number of individuals who make claims against the company, but that does not mean those claims have merit,” the statement added.

Comparing Vandermeyden’s allegations to those leveled by Fowler, Ellis, and the many other women who have spoken up about their mistreatment at various tech companies reveals some familiar patterns: pervasive tolerance of sexual misconduct from high performers, dismissive responses from HR, and retaliation from management. And two key takeaways from these scandals have to do with the importance of company culture and the role of HR. In Uber’s case, Cale Guthrie Weissman writes at Fast Company, Fowler’s allegations suggest that change is badly needed within the company’s HR function:

Ineffective human resources is one of the most persistent problems that plague all companies, no matter what their size. For Fowler, HR was the only recourse she had to report managers’ wrongdoings. The system that was meant to document and thoroughly investigate the claim chose to (according to Fowler) turn a blind eye in favor of a manager who allegedly produces good results. HR’s failure to provide a safe environment in which employees can report misconduct left Fowler feeling unsupported. In the end, she felt she was left with no recourse but to ignore the harassment or leave. Change is only being brought about now because Fowler went public with her story.

Stepping back, Bloomberg‘s Carol Hymowitz contends that a lack of effective HR may in fact be at the very heart of Silicon Valley’s sexism problem, as too many young tech companies see HR professionals “as rule-bound killjoys, anathema to the work-hard, play-hard culture of startups”:

“You’re in a race to build your product and get to market, and anything that doesn’t directly contribute to that, including HR and even financial controls, is low priority when you’re first starting up,” said Magdalena Yesil, an early investor in more than 30 technology companies including Salesforce.com Inc. “Of course, without HR at a time when you’re hiring very quickly, you don’t have anyone training new employees about what behavior is acceptable or not.”

A new company should have an experienced human resources manager by the time they have about 100 employees, Yesil said. At that point, they need someone who can oversee performance issues, compensation plans and management training.

Most technology startups wait far longer. … When Silicon Valley companies finally hire HR staff, they often do so with a handful of narrow priorities in mind:recruiting and retention. If a top performer bullies colleagues or subordinates, they decide it’s more important to keep him happy than to address the concerns of his targets.