I get it – snooze-worthy, old-fashioned harassment and discrimination training isn’t in line with the vibe you’re trying to create at your hip tech startup. You want to be laid back, cut out all the corporate bull$&^*, build a community within your company that transcends normal working drudgery. I totally get it – millennials are flocking to you, and the rigid rules and boundaries of the generation before go out the window, because they have to. Millennials view bureaucratic rigidity as the workplace antichrist – a symbol of barriers to innovation and individual happiness at work.
I know that you’re trying to avoid giving your employees the corporate version of the classic mom lecture – “We have rules to protect you, we do it because we love you, this hurts us more than it hurts you.” Your employees aren’t children. Yet you may not be aware of the risk your organization faces – both legal and reputational – if you fail to provide adequate discrimination and harassment training and a little bit of structure around your corporate compliance training program.
I hope you’re in better shape than Tinder, GitHub, Square and any number of other companies (startups and beyond) that have been in the news recently. It’s clear that a harassment or discrimination claim of any kind goes beyond just the individuals involved – the company that employs them is on the hook too. And it happens to be your company – well, let’s just say that you really want to avoid the press that comes with such an incident.
So why don’t startup execs just slap in place the typical protocols that would help shield the company – barriers like harassment and discrimination training, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policy attestation, and a whistleblower hotline implementation?
Culture – Structure, policy, and compliance and ethics programs just aren’t part of startup DNA. Not only are they often perceived as micromanagement, but they’re also seen as unnecessary, an idea based in a fundamental trust in employees. It’s a necessary trust – when you’re building a company with only a handful of other people, those people are your lifeline. You’ve got enough on your plate that you must trust them to do their jobs out of necessity, and since you’re likely all betting your mortgages on the success of the company, that trust goes far beyond mere job fulfillment. Yet making that trust unconditional without any sort of a safety net in place puts you at a huge risk – look at Tinder. The woman who was fired was the co-founder of the company, yet she was stripped of her title and position after reporting her claims.
Focus – Startups have a growth first mindset, with everything else on the backburner. Once again, this is understandable – you need money to keep the lights on. Yet important efforts, like compliance and ethics programs, are often lost even once the company has grown past the initial fear of how to pay the utility bill.
Money – Note that money is last on my list. It doesn’t cost any money to put a policy in place, and it certainly doesn’t cost any money to stand up for an employee who comes to you with a complaint. Harassment and discrimination training programs, whistleblower hotlines, and employee awareness materials do have a cost associated with them, even if they are a valid and important investment in the company’s growth.
5 Effortless Ways You Can Protect Your Startup Today
These should be considered the bare minimum, but they’re fast, cheap, and easily implementable. Take care of this TODAY so you don’t have to worry about lawsuits and negative publicity in the face of harassment or discrimination claims.
The first step is to write your harassment and discrimination policy. If you’re a tiny company, think 5, 10, 15 people, just having a policy will put you miles ahead of most startups. That means you can get away with keeping it simple – state in clear terms that you will not accept harassment or discrimination of any type, and that you will thoroughly investigate any employee claims.
Next, make employees accountable for their behavior on social media channels. Your social media policy should clarify that employees are responsible for everything they post on social media, both on personal and corporate channels. Clearly state that this makes them responsible for discriminatory or harassing remarks made on any social media channel. Evaluate the benefits of adding social media training as soon as is reasonable at your organization.
Make your commitment to preventing harassment and discrimination clear. This can be as simple as a video recorded with your iPhone distributed to employees on a private YouTube channel.
Create an incident flowchart that clearly outlines how a report of harassment or discrimination will be handled in your organization. Right now, that flow chart may only feature a handful of managers and yourself, but simply creating this document gets you thinking about the process and efficiency of the reporting system.
Create an online or phone reporting system. Yep, you can do it yourself if you really have to. Again, this won’t scale beyond startup size, but consider setting up an additional phone line with voicemail that only you have access too. Employees can report incidents for investigation without leaving their names. Amateur, but better than nothing at all. Another option would be creating a reporting Dropbox, where employees can write out and save complaints. Whichever option you choose (even if you choose a professional whistleblower hotline,) make sure your employees know how to report incidents and how investigations will take place.
Bonus: Outline in writing the steps you’ve taken thus far, and include it with your investor materials. Investors will be thrilled to see that you’re thinking of how to proactively mitigate risk and prevent incidents, rather than waiting until your company is in jeopardy like most startups do. The early bird may get the worm, but the responsible startup gets the VC funding.
It may seem obvious, but the most important thing you can do is back up these written materials with your actions. If you dismiss reports or belittle employees, your commitment is clearly compromised, and you’re setting yourself up for a (well-deserved) PR nightmare.
Also keep in mind that the steps above are meant for tiny startups – once your business grows you must invest in a human resources or compliance role. This person can manage your policies, training, attestations, and other human resources functions until your company gets large enough to build out separate HR and compliance roles.
It’s not only startups that battle sexual harassment and discrimination claims – American Apparel, Yahoo, and even the CIA have recently faced allegations. But larger organizations are generally (and I use this term loosely, as there have been some major failings amongst larger companies as well) better able to handle such incidents, due to defined structure and processes. More importantly, they also have a longer reputation and a legal team to fall back on. These are luxuries that your startup doesn’t have, and won’t have the chance to build if your startup’s flame is doused in a legal nightmare.