Image: Shutterstock

HR Comes Last at Startups, and Women Pay the Price

Julianne Tveten

Julianne Tveten

Ping-pong table first, HR manager later.

Image: Shutterstock

At the startup where software developer Jen used to work, the presence of human resources was, to use her words, "a joke." ("Jen," it should be noted, is a pseudonym.)

"One of my coworkers would say, 'If you have an HR issue, go to [the lead developer] and sit on his lap,'" she told Motherboard. "Everybody didn't want to take themselves too seriously."

This attitude isn't unique to Jen's former employer—it's endemic to tech companies throughout the country. HR is widely neglected in the industry; and the repercussions for female employees are rippling.

The genesis of the modern tech company goes something like this: A couple of friends have an idea for an online product, which they decide to turn into a business. After months of working 14-hour days in living rooms and coffee shops and soliciting investments from family and friends ("angel investors," in startup parlance), they're able to broaden their headcount.

Still, time and funds are limited, and the founders need to build and refine their product rapidly to appease investors. Given the confines, they devote hiring efforts strictly to personnel they deem immediately essential—software developers, marketers, product managers—pretermitting infrastructure and, often, legal compliance. (Google, for instance, had 63 employees before its first HR hire in 1999; when asked about their HR hiring histories, Facebook, Twitter, and Github declined to comment. Tinder, Uber, and Airbnb didn't respond.)

"Some startups may start with two or three people for a year or two, and then all of a sudden, they have 50 or 60 folks working for them because people have invested in them, and they expect results," Ian Carleton Schaefer, an employment and labor attorney and co-editor of the blog Technology Employment Law, told Motherboard. "They may not have been thinking from day one about, 'How do we structure the workforce?'"

Initially, the effects seem subtle, even innocuous. Leveraging their loose organization, many tech companies aim to foster social, relaxed environs, blurring the boundaries between professional life and social life.

Seeking exponential growth and unwavering employee commitment, companies proffer "rewards" like in-house ping-pong tables and free tacos in exchange for workers' sacrifices of nights and weekends.

Yet the potential threats these marathon hours pose to women far outweigh the perks.

"I have heard from women who've been in startups that with the long hours, there are definitely times where they feel a bit uncomfortable being in office situations late at night that may be related to not feeling comfortable with a coworker, but it could also be just not feeling comfortable with their physical safety leaving the building late at night," Elizabeth Ames, senior vice president of marketing at the Anita Borg Institute, told Motherboard.

What's more, alcohol often plays a significant role in employee bonding at tech companies, further isolating women. Jen's former employers had a penchant for nightly bar visits and held "initiation rituals" in which new hires would shotgun beers; abstaining employees thus missed opportunities to hobnob with the bosses, and most grew sufficiently disgruntled with the booze-addled opportunity gap to quit.

To call the "work hard, play hard" atmosphere inhospitable to women who are pregnant or have families to come home to is a gross understatement—especially when 40 percent of women in tech are afraid to even mention their families at work.

Leveraging their loose organization, many tech companies aim to foster social, relaxed environs, blurring the boundaries between professional life and social life

Because it can result from a mere lack of consideration, this deficient infrastructure may not seem malicious. However, conscious decisions do contribute to the problem. The ethos of "disrupting" established institutions can color startup founders' perceptions of traditional business organization; many companies, led by enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, reject the cubicled infrastructure of the offices of their parents' generations in favor of an ostensibly open, "streamlined" approach. In turn, the securities those older employers maintained—eight-hour days, parental protections, and incremental pay raises, for example—often disintegrate.

Airbnb exemplified this last year when it replaced its HR department with an "Employee Experience Group." A glorified corporate makeover, it reinforces the rewards-for-extreme-hours model; the "employee experience" disguises sous-chef-prepared meals and staff trips as part of a healthy working environment in an attempt to perpetuate long hours. A Forbes article described the shift as "[blurring] the lines between the functions of Marketing, Communications, Real Estate, Social Responsibility, and Human Resources." (Perhaps more telling, a blog called HR is Dead professed a "culture crush" on Airbnb.)

Ultimately, these structural issues contribute to one of the greatest systemic problems facing working women today: barriers to advancement, known to many as the glass ceiling. Without HR, the bias proven to hinder the promotion of women in tech only widens.

"There is a tremendous amount of bias [against women] in promotion practices. When you have organizational structures and policies that are not very well defined, those are incredible opportunities for that bias to come through. When you're in early stages of organization and there isn't any clear process of promotion or any clear standards, often the promotions are based on who likes who," Ames said.

This is certainly true for Jen, who just left her company for that very reason. She had started working when the employee count hovered around 20; during her tenure, she made consistent efforts to advance and to recruit more women, all of which went unrecognized.

"I think one of the biggest problems about not having HR was there was no oversight in terms of support for career growth and making our workplace more diverse," she said. "I felt like I had this opportunity being a part of an organization from the beginning where I could say, 'We can build this out to where we want it to be. Let's hire diversely. Let's bring on the best talent that we can.' But they never put that much thought into it because they didn't have somebody dedicated to that role."

These problems permeate companies at all stages. Startups that don't implement HR in their infancy usually don't take it seriously as they mature; the company Jen worked for was recently acquired, but an HR rep was only introduced six months into the acquisition. Travis Kalanick, CEO of perennially victim-dismissive Uber, has previously dodged questions about his company's HR strategy.

Schaefer said most of his startup-founder clients only implement HR retroactively, after lawsuit threats have already surfaced—and the legal team, not the executives, fills in the gaps. Recent cases of harassment at tech giants like Tinder and Github have illustrated, in an especially egregious form, the dangers of minimizing HR; in the wake of Tinder's lawsuit, founder Sean Rad conceded that "the lines got blurred, the boundaries should have been stronger," and only after Github faced allegations did it accelerate its HR hiring efforts.

"Usually, the wakeup call comes by way of litigation, investigation, or when the people strategy is not completely sound and investors or potential acquirers look at the operating model and it impacts their evaluation," Schaefer said. "And that's often way too late in the game to be focused on that."

"It's important to get on top of these issues early on or it's easy to go for years out of [legal] compliance," Michelle Capezza, an attorney who edits the blog with Schaefer, told Motherboard.

Of course, HR alone won't liberate women from workplace injustice. It's only an arm of a company, and even when HR is active, it may fall short of creating an equitable workplace. A recent study showed that 60 percent of women in the tech industry report unwanted sexual advances, 60 percent of whom were dissatisfied with the course of action.

"Usually, the wakeup call comes by way of litigation"

At Google, for example, a woman named Julia Chou was repeatedly sexually harassed by her manager. After she reported it to HR (and endured a tearful investigation), she told Motherboard, she never learned how the accused was punished, though she knew his position hadn't changed. "HR only told me that appropriate disciplinary action had been taken," she said. Chou eventually left the company.

In the tech industry, transformative change won't happen until executives begin to vanquish their entrenched biases with tools like blind resume screenings and diversity benchmarks. But if a strong HR presence can help a woman feel safe when she goes home, have a job to return to after maternity leave, earn the promotion she deserves, or be free from sexual harassment, isn't it, at the very least, a start?

Silicon Divide is a series about gender inequality in tech and science. Follow along here.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Github was the target of a lawsuit. In fact, Github merely faced public allegations of sexual and gender-based harassment.