This year has brought us to a crossroads for work culture. We’ve made some inroads, but we have a long way to go. We can decide to move ahead — where we haven’t been before and where we haven’t had the willpower to lead. Or we can stay on the same path and continue with what’s comfortable yet problematic.
The silver lining in this traumatic 2017 is the collective understanding of what’s happening in our workplaces. More and more people shared their experiences, many publicly. A lot of bad things have happened to individuals, and many of them didn’t know how to process it. This year’s stories provided a way of looking at these experiences in context and voicing them as: “This is actually discriminatory. This is actually bias. This is actually harassment. This is what is systematically preventing you from succeeding, and it’s not your fault.”
In tech over the past several years, I’ve seen woman after woman after woman — disproportionately women of color — and a few men, share their stories only to get slammed by the press and the public. It happened to me, so I know about the hurt and the humiliation. But there were also people telling us, “You’re doing a good thing. I believe you. Thank you.”
Technology, from Medium to Twitter, has empowered those speaking up and given us control over their narratives. The chorus of people who are listening and supportive is growing. Perpetrators are starting to be held accountable for their direct harassment. Many are being fired and pushed out. Good riddance.
But that’s just a first baby step. For lasting change, we need to cover new ground. And that means a lot more than discarding a few bad actors. “Firing” perpetrators gives the appearance of action but actually only deflects public attention from the fact that, to my knowledge: No CEOs have publicly stated they will hold themselves accountable for the actions of their employees. No boards they report to have publicly said they will hold CEOs accountable for inclusive environments. No venture capital investors who fund them have said publicly that they’re going to hold anyone accountable. No money managers that fund VC firms have said anything publicly.
To forge inclusive workplaces, we must push for transformational change by asking the right questions until CEOs and boards accept accountability. The stories of discrimination and abuse are being told, but leaders are not taking responsibility for creating a culture to prevent inappropriate actions and punish violators in the future. History will repeat itself, I promise you, until all those responsible are held accountable.
Let’s not confuse board members’ efforts to paper over a PR mess as “accountability.” When a board hires an outside counsel to make a recommendation, when a company (name your firm) releases an apology touting “better training, more communication, better culture,” and when a discriminating or harassing CEO is replaced by someone who looks just like him, we should challenge whether it is authentic effort to change or just to temporarily appease the public.
I see some real promise of change — and, perhaps surprisingly, it’s from tech CEOs. For example, Periscope Data CEO Harry Glaser (recently rated top CEO in San Francisco) has stated that for startups, “culture is one of the things you have to get right in the beginning,” and that once you incorporate diversity and inclusion into your culture, it acts as a flywheel that builds momentum for change.
Glaser believe CEOs needs to stand front and center and tell all their employees, “We want to be welcoming to be inclusive and welcoming of everyone. People from all walks of life should walk into the office and feel like it welcomes them.” He says that means moving beyond video games and ping-pong tables and making adult behavior and intentional decisions about office decor and interactions an explicit goal and a value.
With more CEOs like Harry Glaser coming onto the scene to lead their inclusive startups to success, workplace culture has a chance for lasting change. We can accelerate this change by holding current CEOs and boards responsible for their corporate cultures.
Leadership is at a crossroads. We need to replace those in executive C-suites, boardrooms, and VC offices with people who bring diverse perspectives — and the willpower to make and enforce hard decisions.
We can jail perpetrators for their crimes, but until we hold to account those who hire, promote, and reward these perpetrators (even if they are “rock stars”), we will not have safe workplaces free from harassment, bias, and discrimination. I’ll believe in lasting change when I see those CEOs and board members who enable bad actors and bad behavior punished alongside the perpetrators. People may say that this approach is harsh, but we need leaders to see and treat harassment as the crime it already is—and as the giant financial liability it has proven itself to be time and time again.
Perhaps most important, we need to support companies that have forged a new path, support the CEOs who make and enact this proclamation, and applaud businesses that work at being adults. Who in your network is doing the right things? When was the last time you supported a company that did what was right? When did you urge an investor to step up — or to step down?
Where do you want us to end up? And what road will you take to get us there?