Earlier this year, ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler penned a blistering essay that revealed the ride-sharing company’s culture was closer to one you’d expect to find in a locker room — not at the highest valued unicorn in Silicon Valley.
These many instances of sexual harassment, discrimination, and unprofessional behavior sparked the recent lawsuit from Uber’s earliest investors Benchmark. This suit claims that the misconduct goes far beyond what has already hit the media, only adding to the cascade of dominos.
However, Uber wasn’t an isolated incident. Other brand-name companies, like Apple and Google, have been accused of cultivating similar toxic “bros-only” cultures. Dave McClure of 500 StartUps, for instance apologized after his “creepy” behavior toward women came to light in a New York Times article. Binary Capital cofounder Justin Caldbeck’s inappropriate behavior forced him out of his own firm.
Any way you slice it, tech has a huge problem with bro culture. It’s bad news. Women are marginalized. Limited partners are turned off. Customers lose confidence when these debaucherous stories inevitably make their way into the public sphere.
We see it at our own companies, Knotel and TechStars. We work with thousands of CEOs per year. We have been bringing together groups of women and men, senior and junior, large and small groups. We even made a list of warning signs and behaviors you should use to put a mirror up to your company, bro. Specifically, your culture is toxic if any of this sounds familiar:
1. At meetings, it’s clear that management is a good old boys’ club. Women are rarely promoted — or, in many cases, never promoted.
Solution: Add women and members of other underrepresented groups to your management team. Need convincing? Listen to advertising star Cindy Gallop: “Every brand marketer should be actively looking to put more women into leadership than men,” she told Media Marketing, because when male leaders do that, they will be astonished at how much better their business will do and what better working lives they will have.”
2. Your maternity/paternity leave policies are out of whack. Maybe you don’t offer any maternity leave — like companies in (those, not exactly comparative countries) Papua New Guinea and Oman. Maybe you offer maternity leave, but not paternity leave.
If your policies are out of step with balanced parental roles, your culture is toxic.
Solution: Create a family leave policy for both men and women to help boost morale, retention and productivity. Everyone, regardless of gender, deserves to spend time with his or her children.
3. Flirty comments are explained away — not fixed. Inappropriate behavior is the norm. Hiring managers flirting with rookies is “just the way it is around here.”
Not only is such behavior terrible, imagine the PR backlash if the New York Times got wind of your awful culture.
Solution: Zero tolerance. Stop the behavior in its tracks.
4. You congratulate male colleagues on nice work. Female colleagues? On nice clothes. We’ve all been there when someone casually compliments a female coworker on her appearance and physical attributes.
The behavior’s easily dismissed: “But I was just being friendly!”
Solution: Treat male and female employees equally. Reward similar behaviors. And keep your comments about your female employees’ outfits to yourself.
5. Offsites are all about catching the game over a beer (or seven). While plenty of women enjoy watching sports, playing golf or drinking a tasty microbrew, pay attention to how many women come to your team-building events.
Solution: If there are a lot of no-shows, consider how you can make these outings enjoyable and comfortable for everyone.
6. Men make more than women. Your bros collect fat paychecks every two weeks while the women at your startup struggle to pay rent.
Solution: Salary transparency. Eliminate the wage gap by letting everyone know what everyone else makes. Perhaps standardize those paychecks by level.
7. You use different adjectives in male and female performance reviews. Men and women are held to different standards. You call women “moody” or “aggressive” and men “passionate” or “motivated” for the same behavior.
Solution: Swap the pronouns in the performance review you’ve just written to see if the feedback still holds up.
8. When employees voice their concerns there is no action. A female employee reports a problem with the behavior of a colleague or manager — and it’s like the report went into the HR version of Twilight Zone.
Solution: Put a protocol in place to promptly investigate all complaints, and be sure to always circle back with employees who report issues about what steps have been taken.
9. You live by a female “quota.” Female candidates are approached as a diversity box to be checked instead of as a valuable asset to the company.
Solution: Build a big pipeline of qualified women. Hire the best people for every job. You’ll end up with a high ratio of women at your company. Nice!
10. Employees don’t know what’s expected of them. Your team members should probably know how they’re supposed to behave. But if you don’t have anything in writing — like a code of conduct — they’ll excuse away their awful behavior.
Solution: Develop community standards. Make sure everyone knows what appropriate behavior looks like.
So now that you’ve had a chance to assess your company, how did your culture hold up? Do these descriptions sound a little too familiar?
The good news is that your toxic bro culture, or even the subtle bias in your workplace, isn’t set in stone. Implement solutions like the ones outlined above — and quickly. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before your company becomes a household name. And not for a good reason.