Tech Companies All-Costs Model is Destroying Human Resources Management
March 17 2017 - On February 19, 2017, Susan Fowler, an engineer at Uber wrote an extensive blog post recounting the sexual harassment she experienced at the company. According to her statement, within the first couple of weeks working at Uber, Fowler was propositioned by her new manager to become involved in him and his wife's open relationship arrangement. She reported the incident to Human Resources, where she expected them to solve the issue. However, instead she got a rude awakening. This was apparently not the man's first offense and because of the policies at Uber, he had been getting away with this behavior. She was told by HR and upper management that although the incident was clearly classified as sexual harassment, the man was a "high-performer" and they did not want to punish him for an "innocent mistake on his part".
Instead of punishing the culprit, HR punished the victim. They told her that she had two options. She could find another team to work with and never interact with the man again, or stay on the team that she loved and understand that the man will give her a poor performance review which they couldn't do anything about it. Since she was warned about her options, she was also not allowed to report the poor performance review as retaliation for not accepting her manager's proposition. After trying multiple times to escalate the situation, she ultimately decided to leave the team that she had significant experience and expertise in.
Later, she started talking to other female engineers in the company, many of whom had the same experience with the same manager and received similar responses from HR. She learned that many women were transferring out of her organization or quitting Uber because of the institutionalized sexism present in the company. There were other sexist incidents such as when the company refused to buy leather jackets, promised to everyone in the organization, for the female engineers because there were not enough women there. When she joined Uber, Fowler estimated that her section was over 25 percent women, yet by the time she tried to transfer to another engineering organization, this number had dropped to 6 percent, and by the time she quit, the organization comprised of only 3 percent women. So why did this happen? Why did Uber's Human Resources Department let this sexism continue?
This experience is one of many stories that portray the degradation of Human Resource Management at big tech companies. It appears that the culture at Silicon Valley companies make it so that their HR departments are unable, or unwilling to address negative behavior in the workplace, particularly aimed at women. There are a couple of reasons why this culture developed.
Race Against the Clock Culture: Tech companies are always competing against each other and the bottom line is to race to build your product and get it out to market before everyone else, at any cost. This means that company functions that do not work towards this goal, such as Human Resources, are at the very bottom of the company's priority list. Most companies create an HR department when they reach one hundred employees, but tech companies are far behind that curve. They wait until the last minute to develop HR policies and hire an HR team focused on ethics training and problem-resolution. Some tech companies won't even develop a HR department until the company is in the spotlight for HR issues.
Focus on Recruitment and Retention: Due to the fast nature of tech companies, Human Resource departments are so focused on constant and quick recruitment that they do not have the time to train current employees on ethical issues such as sexual harassment. This means that when there are complaints about the "high-performing" manager that you just hired, you slip these complaints under the rug, and pretend it did not happen for the sake of the company's work flow.
Borderless Offices: Many tech firms also embrace the work from home culture. This provides many benefits for both employees and companies in the tech environment, but it also makes harassment and ethics violations harder to track. Working from home blurs the line between work and personal life, and makes it easier for the culprit or HR managers to disregard complaints from home.
The overall culture of Silicon Valley companies makes it very easy for HR departments to get away with not punishing managers for sexual harassment violations. These violations are pushed aside and do not become issues in the company until it is out in the press, much like Fowler's case. However, it is important to take steps to ensure a safe and healthy workplace for all individuals before it reaches this level. As a human resources manager, it is your job to take every allegation seriously and work to resolve each issue, regardless of the culture at your company.