How Startups Can Fight Bias and Harassment, Even Without an HR Team

LAST REVIEWED Sep 18 2019 12 MIN READ

By Anisha Sekar

Despite the tech world’s faith in meritocracy, startups are not immune to bias, discrimination and outright harassment. Gender bias is one common form: According to a 2016 survey of 200 women in tech, 60% had faced unwanted sexual advances, and 65% of those women said at least one came from a superior. But the problem goes deeper than egregious misconduct, with over 80% of women saying they’ve dealt with demeaning comments from male coworkers, and two-thirds saying they were excluded from social or networking events. Racial, socioeconomic, sexual orientation, and education biases are also sadly not uncommon in the startup world. Larger companies, in tech and beyond, devote entire teams to promoting diversity and ensuring a safe work environment. As a small startup, you probably don’t have that option (you may not even have an HR team or manager yet). Still, you can make strides to combat discrimination and harassment – and your efforts now will lay the groundwork for a welcoming, healthy culture for the rest of your company’s lifespan. Here are five ways any startup leader can take to create a truly inclusive team.

Look for culture adds, not culture fits

The difference between a culture fit and a culture add is this: Culture fits are about hiring people like the ones you’ve already hired, while culture adds are about hiring people whose backgrounds, skills, and personalities complement those of your team. If you’re looking for culture fits, you’ll end up with people whose backgrounds and demographics mirror your own. Hobbies and cultural bias: Of course, if you’re male (for example), you probably aren’t thinking, “I’m a man, and I want to hire people like me, so I will hire men.” On the other hand, you may think, “I want someone who gets along well with my team, and we regularly go to the climbing gym, so a good fit would be someone I can see myself climbing with.” On the face of it, this isn’t a bad thing – if you’re spending 60-plus hours a week with someone, you’d better get along. However, something as simple as climbing is disproportionately white, male, able-bodied and affluent, so you’re implicitly biasing yourself against people who don’t fit that mold. College alumni networks and socioeconomic status: Another common example is looking for alumni of your university. Again, this probably isn’t a case of overt bias, but a side effect of recruiting from your network or going with what you know. However, top-tier universities notoriously skew towards high socioeconomic status: at the most competitive institutions, students from the top quartile of wealth comprise 72% of the student body, while students from the bottom quartile make up just 3%. Rather than looking for hires that have the same backgrounds, interests, and personalities, seek out those who share your core values but also bring something new to the table. This might be an atypical work experience, a non-Ivy League education, hobbies you’ve never tried, or simply just new ways of approaching problems. (If you’re worried that seeking out such candidates will lower your hiring bar, check out this article.) Shifting your mindset from culture fits to culture adds helps to promote diversity while infusing the company with fresh ideas. Seek culture adds through:

  • Sourcing from schools that specialize in your desired skill set, rather than only Ivy League-caliber universities

  • Recruiting engineers from affinity groups for minority, LGBTQ, female, or older coders

  • Consciously evaluating your own biases

  • Thoroughly vetting or getting rid of “culture fit” questions in interviews

Support good ideas, not loud ideas

One of the defining aspects of startup life is a flat hierarchy – relatively junior employees are empowered to give feedback and ideas, often directly to the C-suite. The downside is that this level of access means that people who speak louder are heard more. Not only do men dominate conversations in meetings, men who speak up are seen as more competent, while women who do the same are perceived as less competent. The problem is compounded for women of color (especially black and Latina women), who constantly have to fight stereotypes of being angry, lazy, or overly emotional. Ensuring that all ideas are heard, and good ones rewarded, helps your culture as well as your business. Make sure marginalized voices are heard by:

  • Giving employees the option of sharing ideas through email or chats, rather than just in meetings

  • Making sure you consider those emails and chats – research shows that emails and meeting requests from people of color are less likely to get a response

  • Practicing the shine theory by ensuring ideas are attributed to the person who suggested them

  • Firmly cutting off people who interrupt others in meetings

Set up a rotation for office tasks

Startups that don’t have a dedicated office manager often have an “everyone pitches in” mentality when it comes to taking notes, planning meetings, ordering food, cleaning up, bringing in cakes for birthdays, and other office tasks. Unfortunately, this often leads to women doing the “office housework” on top of their regular jobs. Women are expected to take on scheduling, cleanup, and entertaining – even if they’re lawyers, scientists, or executives. A New York University study compared performance ratings of men and women who were asked to stay late at the office and help a colleague. Women who didn’t help were perceived 12% less favorably, while men were actually perceived 14% more favorably for declining. Men are expected to be busy with their jobs; women are expected to pick up the slack. And once again, the problem is compounded for women of color. A 2014 study found that almost half of black and Latina women in STEM were mistaken for administrative or custodial staff; even when their roles were known, they were often asked to do office housework like note-taking. Avoid this double standard by:

  • Setting up a schedule for cleaning, meal setup, and organizing to keep the “office housework” distribution equitable.

  • Have a rotating, designated note-taker in meetings (or simply have everyone take their own notes) so that no one’s contributions are handicapped.

Create a process for employees to voice concerns

Establishing a complaint process that doesn’t involve conflicts of interest is difficult in small companies. If a manager (or even the CEO) causes an employee to feel harassed or uncomfortable, that employee may not know whom they can talk to without fear of retaliation. Formalizing and publishing a complaint process can remove some of those concerns. Any policy you create should make sure that all employees can file reports with someone outside of their chain of command, which at small companies usually means designating at least two team members to hear concerns. The HR Specialist offers a harassment policy template, while HR Works provides some tips for making sure that policy is implemented correctly. Federal law requires businesses with at least 15 employees to have a procedure for employees to voice harassment or discrimination complaints without fear of retaliation. Employers are liable for harassment by a supervisor if that harassment leads to employment action (like termination or being passed over for promotions). They’re also on the hook unless they can prove that they exercised reasonable care to prevent harassment and the employee unreasonably failed to complain to management. Even though federal law enforces these laws starting with the 15th employee, some states begin even earlier. While there are federal, state, and local statutes on discrimination, you can go even further by:

  • Encouraging employees to file written complaints, for their protection as well as your company’s

  • Putting an anti-harassment and discrimination policy front-and-center in your employee handbook

  • Keeping an open mind: microaggressions that “might not sound that bad” to you can eat away at the person hearing them

Related article: Human Interest Communication Styles: How to Have Discussions and Give Feedback in an Open Office

Institute a zero-tolerance policy for hate

If you’re hiring in accordance with your values, and you’re reading this article, chances are you’ve done your best to weed out people who will create a toxic environment. However, you can’t screen for everything, and even the best employees may give unintentional offense if they don’t realize how their words are perceived. You’ll need to both communicate norms and standards, and tell managers what to do if a subordinate is out of line. Create a safe, inclusive atmosphere with:

  • An explicit, visible, and consistent policy around offensive language and actions

  • Publicly displayed value systems including respect, kindness, professionalism, and celebrating differences

  • Regular reminders to managers that slurs, stereotyping, and any written or verbal harassment is not acceptable, and it’s their responsibility to enforce that

Building an inclusive, welcoming workplace free of bias and harassment isn’t easy with a dedicated HR team and budget, and is even more difficult for small startups. Still, if you can take steps towards a healthy culture, you’ll have a solid moral foundation on which to build your company. Photo credit

Anisha Sekar has written for U.S. News and Marketwatch, and her work has been cited in Time, Marketplace, CNN and more. A personal finance enthusiast, she led NerdWallet's credit and debit card business, and currently writes about everything from getting out of debt to choosing the best health insurance plan.

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