culture definitionI’ve been thinking a lot about startup culture recently. When Yahoo announced that they were changing their policy around “remote” workers, that was really about culture. Yahoo needs to overhaul it’s culture. Every employee is going to have to be a part of that process. It’s almost impossible to drive cultural change when the only interface someone has to that change is email or IM. Culture must be experienced, so people needed to be on campus for the cultural changes to “rub off” on them. The industry got so up in arms over the perceived assault on the freedom to code in your PJs or craft presentations at Starbucks they misunderstood how Yahoo, in transition from being a media company to a technology company, absolutely needs to energize it’s culture as much as it need innovation in it’s products.

Culture was front and center for me this week as the technology community was taking sides over a new controversy. Gender equality in the technology industry has been a hot button for a long time. Despite great gains by women in the executive ranks (the CEOs of Yahoo, HP, IBM and Xerox are all women as is the COO of Facebook) there is still too often a “boy’s club” atmosphere in the engineering ranks. This was demonstrated when a female technologist, overhearing some crude jokes and boorish commentary from two men in the audience of a conference panel, tweeted a picture of the “gentlemen”. She opted for a public shaming instead of a private rebuke.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, they were all fired.

Now the tech industry seems to have split into sides with some claiming the two male engineers are victims of a feminist overreaction while others have attacked the woman’s employer for firing her. Closer to home there was a long and vociferous discussion on Seattle’s Tech Startup email list. It began with the conference incident but continuing into whether or not female engineers could adapt in male driven startups. I was pretty stunned as I read an ongoing series of posts defending why startups shouldn’t change their cultures to accomodate “sensitive” people and those that couldn’t adapt to the environment should “GTFO”. Thankfully the voices of reason eventually drowned out those still operating in 1970.

Someone told me once that the way someone behaves in public, when they think no one is watching, is the way they behave at home. These two gentlemen were sitting in a crowded conference hall. They felt anonymous in the crowd and just as they would have done back in the office started telling jokes and adding their commentary.

When you go out in public, to a conference, writing on a blog, on Facebook or Twitter, you can say this is “personal” or “the opinions here are my own and not those of my employer”. That’s fine as far as it goes but when you step across the line into sexism or racism your behavior reflects poorly not only on yourself but on your company. Even if you’re just talking too loudly or disrupting the experience for those around you, remember at conferences you’re wearing a badge with your name and your company’s name around your neck. The tweeted picture even shows one of the men wearing a t-shirt with his company’s logo on it. How dumb does a smart guy have to be to forget not only that he shouldn’t be telling sexist jokes in public (or anywhere for that matter) but to do it while wearing his company name on his chest in two places?

Here is part of comment on the STS list, and it still sums it up for me:

I’ll say this about the TechCrunch story — while there are probably lots of ways that the female evangelist could have handled the situation at the conference, the “gentlemen” making jokes during the presentation loud enough to be overheard were not representing themselves or their companies well in a public place. They were at best being rude (ignoring the speaker and disrupting the experience for those around them) and at worst sexist and offensive.

People want to act like an insensitive boor because they think know one is watching. They talked and acted the way they did because that’s probably the way they act back in the office. How they behaved was a reflection on what’s tolerated in that company. They didn’t just go to the conference and then go wild.

Now it’s easy to say this was just one incident that exploded publicly, but the sad truth is that there are thousands of similar incidents that go unmentioned or unreported. The “hardcore” software engineering culture can still be too biased against women and ironically enough for a business that is based on disruption and new ideas, stubbornly resistant to change.

Culturally it’s important to avoid allowing these behaviors to fester in a company. When everyone is together, in one room, sharing space and overhearing conversation it’s easier to notice and address before something escalates internally or embarrasses externally. Never mind that creating a “hostile work environment” is actually illegal.

One of the reasons I am concerned about an over reliance on distributed teams in startups is during those critical early days when norms are being set email, IM and Skype just aren’t the same as being there. If someone does type “Hey, did you hear the one about…” into a shared chat window it can be too easy for  someone who was negatively impacted to just ignore it by minimizing the window, minimizing their feelings and trying to “get along.” For many people reporting an incident of discrimination is hard enough when it’s two people talking in an office. How much harder to share something so impactful and hurtful over the phone or IM chat?

If there’s a common thread through the technology industry, no matter whether you make big business systems or mobile phone games, it’s that there is an absolute war for talent. Every company MUST get not only the best and the brightest but a diverse and dynamic team in order to reach the company’s full creative potential. Building a great culture is more than just fun perks, good computers, a bright paint job in the lobby and dogs in the office. It’s about creating a place where a wide variety of people can bring their “best game” to the team. If you’re not willing to invest in creating the right corporate culture, your competition will be. I will be.

As for the “gentlemen” who were fired for being boors at the conference? I wouldn’t want those guys in my company, not because they behaved like sexist assholes or even that they were just rude and disruptive, but because they showed such poor judgement that I couldn’t trust them to make good decisions elsewhere.

Published by Steve Banfield

Kentucky born, Seattle based. Entrepreneur. Team Builder. Photographer.

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