At the moment there’s some really serious talk about tech leaders and their connections to domestic violence and bullying. I have no interest in discussing these cases nor do I have any insider knowledge, but I do want to talk about early intervention.
It shouldn’t take this level of disaster to remember that the world isn’t a perfect bubble of safety and supportiveness. Responsible companies should get proactive.
If we believe that technology should be accessible and built for real users, then perhaps our companies should be designed for a diverse group of employees. This means two things:
- That employees feel empowered to be the eyes on the street; and,
- That we prioritize safe spaces (and put grownups in charge of consistent enforcement).
EYES ON THE STREET
Berkman Fellow and Microsoft’s Principal Researcher danah boyd just wrote, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In it she discusses urban theorist Jane Jacobs’ theory of the “Eyes on the Street”. The theory is that the safest streets are those where a thriving community deters crime, vandalism and neglect. It’s not far off from Linus’ Law where “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”
For the last decade, boyd has applied Jacobs’ theory to the role of social media communities in identifying warning signs amongst at-risk and suicidal youth. In other words, she believes that the average online Good Samaritan can prevent crisis simply by identifying and reaching out to those in need.
So what are the early warning signs to prevent workplace misconduct or domestic abuse? And how many employees know what to do in the wake of witnessing either of these things? (My guess is not many.)
THE LAND OF GROWN UPS
In Lord of the Flies, a group of school boys are shipwrecked on an island and govern themselves with disastrous results. This is what it’s like in some startups. For whatever reason, a number of tech companies forgo formal HR leadership and policies. Although unintentional, this lack of clarity can come with serious consequences.
Without explicit policies, employees might be confused about what to do in instances of bullying, harassment etc. This confusion, coupled with a potential risk to their own careers, creates a chilling effect. As a result, witnesses are tempted to ignore bad behavior. And unfortunately, this collective silence is interpreted as consent.
What might begin as a single person’s bad behavior or poor judgement, can escalate into a corporate culture that excludes or hurts valuable team members.
SO NOW WHAT?
Here are a number of generic tips for friends and family members to help those they suspect are being abused. Instead of pretending violence is isolated between a victim and an assailant, companies can use tips like these as a starting point to design their own action plans and discuss them with staff members.
In light of recent events, I’m hoping that more startups work to make employees feel safe, supported, and empowered to do the right thing. And let’s be crystal clear: As neighbors and colleagues, the right thing to do for each other when bad things are happening, is to intervene. Period.
Instead of being the silent bystander or the judgmental peanut gallery, let’s build inclusive companies and be the eyes on the street.