When Will Tech Feel the Pain?

I keep wondering when the current movement of powerful men being held accountable for their terrible behavior will hit Silicon Valley. It’s only beginning to make its way to the marketing world and I hope this Buzzfeed story, along with its’ accompanying overview of interviews from female employs, kicks off an avalanche.

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.

Now that we’re a decade into the trend, this idea that work should be “fun” seems designed not to make employees feel as welcome as possible but to make sure they’re disposable, feeling beholden to the company for all aspects of their life. If you complain you’re obviously not having fun and should, therefore, be let go. Not because of the complaint, of course, but because you’re not a good “culture fit.”

That assumes the company even has employees, though. As the story points out, there’s a heavy reliance on freelancers who are a dime a dozen and who don’t have the luxury of even minimal legal protections. Any employees, especially at early-stage startups, are likely to be friends or family of the founders. If they’re not, they may be counting on the company to succeed down the road and so aren’t going to jeopardize their own future acting on the complaint of a coworker.

The bigger problem is that not only is Silicon Valley culture one designed to protect itself from any criticism, either internal or external, it’s now such a massive part of our culture and economy that other stakeholders are going to be reluctant to acknowledge any potentially damaging issues. All these companies are built around such a cult of personality that if it were discovered a high-profile founder had been accused of sexual assault by multiple women it would not just bring him down but also the company built around him.

We need to be at least willing to burn it all down to fully grapple with the culture of permissiveness that’s permeated tech, media, politics and every other industry, one that protects powerful and abusive men by rewarding them directly and making everyone else’s success dependent on their continued survival. The problems seem so pervasive that it’s no longer about dealing with each individual issue as it arises; We need to be willing to see entire industries fall.

Then we need to rebuild it all in a way where someone making a sexual abuse/harassment claim isn’t dependent on an HR department that is more interested in rooting out problems than with addressing complaints. If it has more protections for the growing numbers of “gig economy” workers in general, so much the better.