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I work at a startup with no HR department. How do I deal with blatant sexism?

In the age of startups and the gig economy, fewer employees have access to traditional HR departments.

Help Desk A reader asks: I am one of two women at a small tech start up that often operates like a frat house. How do I handle sexist jokes and comments when we don’t have an HR department?

A reader asks: I am one of two women at a small tech start up that often operates like a frat house. How do I handle sexist jokes and comments when we don't have an HR department?

Tech workplace culture is a special breed. They're often high stakes, high stress environments with after hours activities involving alcohol. Sometimes professional boundaries can get lost in the frenzy of team building and innovation.

Dealing with workplace harassment is no joke. Cue HR departments. They were purpose-built to guide us through uncomfortable and serious situations. But it's 2017. We live in the age of startups and gig economies. Many young workers lack access to the security and guidance offered by traditional HR departments.

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"We as tech workers tend to value flexibility, it tends to be a thing that attracts us to startups and early organizations," says Melissa Nightingale, a former executive with Toronto online publishing platform Wattpad. Since the first dotcom boom, Melissa has spent most of her career in some sort of startup, most recently as founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. I reached out to her to provide a bit more context on HR-free workplaces.

"We can be fast and loose with our professional lines, which absolutely has its plusses when it comes to creative work and creative work spaces," she says of startup environments.

But, that fast and loose nature can have its downfalls. With no HR department, a lot of the onus is on the person who is experiencing sexism, she says.

"They not only have to deal with the sexist comments but also have to deal with addressing it. It's doubly abusive."

Melissa has two pieces of advice for anyone experiencing sexism in the workplace:

  1. If you believe the company is well run, and it is something the CEO would take seriously, take your concern directly to them. If it’s a well-run organization, the CEO would follow up, agree that it is not ok and investigate.
  2. Send an email to the CEO following your conversation outlining what was discussed and the next steps that were agreed upon. Having a written record could become important down the road.

You describe your office as a 'frat house', so I'm skeptical this is going to be quickly resolved.

I think you should follow the same steps anyway. Hopefully your frat house colleagues prove me wrong. But if they don't, you have that e-mail correspondence to back you up. If the situation doesn't resolve, I know it's probably not the answer you want to hear, but do you really want to work in an environment that toxic? Bring that correspondence to a lawyer. Or I know a couple journalists who would be more than interested to hear your story, particularly this one.

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Our world is changing. Quickly. Look at what happened at Uber, or 500 StartUps or most recently, Google. These are established, tech giants that are feeling the blow. But bad behaviour can sink a startup.

Investors approach these issues with a critical eye, no one wants to invest in a company with rampant complaints of sexual harassment. The last thing any CEO wants is sexism or bad behaviour in their ranks out-trending the Trump administration.

And to the men in the workplace at fault for this kind of behaviour (you know who you are): Is that sandwich joke really that funny, or is it lazy? Does alienating an entire gender at work make you feel bigger, smarter and more in charge? Do you really think it's appropriate to comment on a coworker's appearance? If you really think it's that funny, and that this writer is just being hormonal, save your awesome jokes for your friends and maintain a professional attitude in your office.

Before you start sending me hate mail, I know this isn't all men and it isn't all start ups. But here's the thing: It shouldn't be any man and it shouldn't be any workplace. Isn't it a bit ironic that a cutting edge tech startup is reverting back to the 1960s and resorting to old stereotypes to win an argument? Aren't we counting on your brains to push us forward? Be an ally. If you see someone being an idiot, tell them.

The startup world is competitive and cutthroat. If you have a strong idea and you want it to succeed, you are going to want all the talent you can get. Sidelining intelligent women or anyone in your office is a surefire way to make your company less competitive and keep that idea of yours as just a pipe dream.


Help Desk is an advice column for young professionals from The Globe and Mail. If you have a question you'd like Kiran Rana to dig into, send an email to helpdeskcolumn@globeandmail.com

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