You Can’t Scale a Frat House

Uber and their “culture of sexism”  may be fading slowly from the front pages, but tech companies are scrambling to review their official practices and unofficial workplace norms. We see now that a single blog post or GlassDoor rating can cripple your company brand. It’s a scary time, but we are (finally) seeing some serious focus on the culture of our tech community.

There is no disputing that the innovation economy, and each individual tech company within it, will benefit from diversity and inclusion at all levels. From a pure talent supply and demand perspective, if any and every capable individual feels welcomed and valued at your company, you have a HUGE advantage.

And yet, everywhere we turn, there are subtle (and not-so-subtle) signs of bad behaviour, professional immaturity and cultures that value uniformity rather than diversity. I like to think well-intentioned tech leaders are just looking to build fun, socially relaxed environments. But when drinking to excess, crass language, and offensive humour become the accepted or promoted social dynamic in your company – you exclude and offend many great employees, and significantly limit your chances of success.

Here are some recent observations. Anything sound familiar? 

“We are proud of our culture. One of our values is that we are NOT a professional environment” – while aiming to create a casual authentic workplace, individuals use this ‘value statement’ to excuse offensive and sexist comments, and lewd behaviour in the office.

We need an executive who fits in with our team. We need to know that we can all drink beer together.” – while this implies a harmless desire to have a team that can socialize and have fun together, it also was an indicator that drinking was part of the executive team culture. 

All of our social events involve drinking, often to excess.” – from an executive who was ready to resign, because the culture supported inappropriate and immature behaviour, and excluded many women, minorities and individuals who chose not to participate in the party atmosphere.

I could go on and on. There are no shortage of signals that many tech companies are either overtly or inadvertently excluding great employees who don’t live up to the social expectations of the young, party-hard, work-hard stereotype.

Want to avoid the risk of both ostracizing great talent and exposing your company to Uber-esque reputation risk?

Look at the social events in your tech community and in your company, both planned and spontaneous. Would someone of any gender, age, sexual orientation, faith or ethnicity feel equally part of the team and part of the community? Would they feel respected, included and valued?

Pay attention to humour and offhand comments in your workplace. If you address and shut down sexist and offensive language and behaviour, you send a strong positive message that you value and respect every individual. You create a foundation of safety and trust that you’ll need to grow your business.

I should note that I’m not suggesting that we ban beer, parties or the occasional well timed F-bomb. Authenticity, fun, and socializing are all parts of what make our tech community great. We wear jeans and flip flops. Our email and slack messages are informal and witty. We may even hug a client or coworker. But we need to see that respect and mindful regard of personal differences, values and boundaries is key to building a positive culture and an inviting community.