In House - The FindLaw Corporate Counsel Blog

GCs: Does Your Company Have (or Need) a Non-Discrimination Policy?

The trial placing one of Silicon Valley's most prestigious venture capital firms in the spotlight has also placed sexual harassment in the spotlight. Last week, we learned that famed venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins didn't even have a non-discrimination policy.

That, in itself, isn't proof of wrongdoing, but it does suggest that Kleiner Perkins may have been taking a casual attitude toward sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," let Kleiner Perkins' situation be a warning so you don't find yourself in the same situation.

Where's the Policy?

Kleiner Perkins has been around for a while, so it's not exactly a "startup," but in the startup environment of Silicon Valley, sexual harassment apparently isn't uncommon. With companies forming in a few months and growing rapidly, it can be easy to overlook things like non-discrimination polices, or even knowing what actions constitute sex discrimination.

Non-discrimination policies exist for a reason. While state and federal law protect employees from gender discrimination, actually proving such a case is more difficult. It becomes a "he said, she said" with the employee claiming adverse treatment because of gender, and the company insisting that the employee was demoted or fired for poor performance.

The fact that Kleiner Perkins couldn't produce a non-discrimination policy is at least circumstantial evidence that they didn't think it was important, which, coupled with other revelations produced during the trial, seems to indicate that men high up in the company saw the business as sort of a boys' club.

It's Not Just About Avoiding Dirty Jokes

What does some of this evidence look like? The partners didn't seem to know what sex discrimination looked like. One senior partner at Kleiner Perkins "didn't understand it was discrimination" when he asked plaintiff Ellen Pao and another junior female partner to take notes at a meeting, according to an investigator who looked into the sexual harassment allegations. The partner "was surprised when they said no," The New York Times reported.

For the top brass at a company, being aware of sexual harassment isn't just about signing a paper saying you won't make sexist jokes in the office. Because they're in a position to control other people, executives need to be aware of how a hostile work environment is created and how even slights like asking a female partner -- but not a male one -- to take notes can contribute to an atmosphere in which female employees and executives don't feel as though they're equal to their male counterparts.

So make sure your company has non-discrimination policies, because it serves as an indication of how important the company thinks equality is.

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