Dozens of tech industry workers responding to a recent BuzzFeed News survey on sexism and harassment said their employers failed to help them resolve the issue. Many of these respondents said sexual harassment went unaddressed because there was no human resources department or higher authority to report it to. Others didn’t report harassment because they feared retribution, or simply because they thought it would do no good. And most of those who did report harassment said they never heard back from HR, or if they did hear back, they were told nothing could be done.
For some respondents, several of these factors coalesced to dissuade them from taking action against their harassers. One user interface designer named Jessica told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t report her married boss for trying to kiss her after a party hosted by their employer because she was afraid of missing out on valuable work experience at the start of her career. Beyond that, she was technically a freelancer, and, she said, “it was a startup — there wasn’t HR or anything like that.”
The tech industry is notorious for overlooking the importance of human resources, preferring to focus on raising cash, churning code, and shipping product, while placating burned out employees with benefits and perks. But tech doesn’t just tend to dislike HR; it dislikes rules in general. Restrictions are the antithesis of its operational ethos, which has for years been defined by the “move fast and break things” philosophy. The industry is dead set on making work fun, but this creates a blind spot and a culture of permissiveness when it comes to harassment and discrimination.
In Silicon Valley, nobody just goes to work — employees do what they love, entrepreneurs follow their dreams, and gig workers relish independence by setting their own schedules. This culture creates myriad gray areas where it’s hard to know what really constitutes professional behavior, and people at every tier of the startup ecosystem are vulnerable to inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.
Jill Hartley, who worked for several large tech companies throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, said raucous parties and sexual harassment were prevalent throughout the industry. But despite what she’s seen, Hartley said she tells her startup-employed daughter to deal with harassment on her own.
“I would never go to HR for something like that. I’m afraid it would put my job in jeopardy,” Hartley, who still works for a major tech company on a contract basis, told BuzzFeed News. “Even if it happened to me now, I wouldn’t go to HR and complain. Those guy are always protected. They always will be protected.”
Over the past year, a slew of famous and powerful men in fields including media, entertainment, tech, and politics have been publicly accused of sexual harassment, misbehavior, and worse. Earlier this year, several female startup founders came forward to accuse male venture capitalists of using their power to make unwelcome advances. Their accusations revealed how the process of raising venture capital can be a minefield for women, and some of those investors made public apologies or resigned from their positions.
But after these scandals came to light, diversity advocates in the tech industry pointed out that the law doesn’t explicitly protect entrepreneurs from sexual harassment — and it doesn’t punish harassers because entrepreneurs by definition are not employees. In August, a California legislator introduced a bill aimed at addressing this issue.
But while that bill, if it becomes law, is an important step, it overlooks the many other people in Silicon Valley who toil in legal gray areas. This industry invented the gig economy, which is powered by a vast and diffuse force of independent contractors, none of whom are protected by labor law, and many of whom, having signed arbitration agreements, may have given up the right to sue their employers in court. In addition, tech startups tend to rely on a heavy rotation of freelance coders, designers, and “doers” to get their apps and services up and running. Very few of them are formally protected, and all of them are dependent on personal connections to make a living, which makes them unlikely to report bad behavior.
And if startups are built on casual work relationships and the culture of hustle, more established companies, like Uber, have tried to emulate that environment. When ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler’s allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company went viral earlier this year, Uber faced the consequences that can come with maintaining this kind of office culture. After a strong public backlash, CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down, and the company is restructuring its work environment. As Uber’s example shows, the tech industry’s tendency to eliminate bureaucracy, advocate for lean management structures, and promote a hard-charging office culture can foster toxic work environments.
An anonymous employee who worked in operations at a tech company in Seattle told BuzzFeed News that she often overheard male employees rating the attractiveness of their customers while looking at photos of them on Facebook or LinkedIn.
“When I did try to talk to the HR department,” she said, “the comment was always, ‘Oh, sorry to hear that, but that's the company culture. We're a startup. It's going to take time to make changes.’”
But by the time this employee quit in 2016, the “startup” in question was 10 years old; earlier this year, according to the ex-employee BuzzFeed News interviewed, a different former employee sued it, alleging she was fired after declining a coworker’s romantic advances.
Another woman at a different company, who also asked to remain anonymous, said she reported a male coworker to HR after he joked that he would cut the baby out of her stomach if she missed a morning meeting due to her pregnancy. But in this instance, the HR department was just one person, who also happened to be the sister of the company’s founder. The woman said she was told that “unless it’s recurrent, or it’s a real threat, we can’t do anything about it.”
According to the employee, the company didn’t take any action to investigate her claims. “They told me if I didn’t like it, I didn’t have to work there,” she said.
Recently, an anonymous user of the tech industry gossip app Blind posted a short message with the subject line, “PSA: HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND.”
“For the engineers out there,” the post says, “it is less hassle to quit than complain to HR about anything. HR is never your friend.”
This post generated hundreds of comments, many from tech employees sharing their own bad experiences with the human resources department at their company. “HR works to protect the company from lawsuits, not to protect YOU from your coworkers,” said one commenter, a piece of workplace wisdom that extends far beyond the tech industry.
But a second user described in a reply how tech companies are even more incentivized to use HR as a legal triage department than other industries: “And if you work at a ‘disruptive’ company where execs believe the government isn’t real, they may even blow off lawsuit material.”
Other workers also felt HR is worse in tech than other places. Jen was working at an East Coast tech company when she asked a male colleague to help her out by “rubber ducking” a bug, a term that in developer parlance means to talk through your code line by line in hopes of finding the root of the issue. But instead of offering assistance, Jen said the colleague replied, “I’d love to take a bath with you.”
Jen said she reported the incident to HR; she said she was fired three weeks later for not knowing a coding language her employer had never told her to learn. She said that after years in the business working a variety of jobs, she thinks the culture of tech is a significant reason why it has failed to stamp out its sexual harassment problem.
“I think HR is worse in tech because everyone is looking to make a quick buck. Everyone thinks they're going to be the next Facebook or Microsoft or Apple,” she said. “Everyone is trying so hard to be famous and rich, they're not willing to think about the details in creating a quality culture.”
Blake Montgomery and Doree Shafrir contributed reporting to this story.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at email@example.com.
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