Courtesy Project Include

When Project Include released a report recently on harassment and hostility in remote workplaces, its core finding initially surprised me. A significant number of the 2,800 people surveyed across different industries experienced an increase in workplace hostility or harassment during the pandemic.

More than 25% experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic. About 10% experienced an increase in race- and ethnicity-based hostility. And 23% of those 50 years old or above saw increased age-based harassment or hostility.

What seemed counterintuitive was that such toxic behavior should rise when people weren’t in physical proximity.

To better understand the findings, and their implications for remote and hybrid work, I spoke with Ellen Pao, CEO of Project Include, a nonprofit focused on diversity and inclusion in the tech industry. Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity.

What have you seen in terms of discrimination by race and gender over the past year, especially its nature and frequency?

We surveyed almost 3,000 employees and workers, mostly at tech companies, but we found very consistent results across many industries. We found that racism and sexism showed up in many different forms—we saw additional harassment and additional hostility around race and gender lines. Asian, Black, Latinx and Indigenous employees were more likely to have experienced increases in harassment and hostility than white coworkers. Women and non-binary people were also more likely to have experienced increases in harassment and hostility since Covid-19, as were transgender employees. And people over 50 years of age were more likely to have experienced increases in age-based hostility.

Can you talk about some of the scenarios that were responsible for that? Given that people have been physically separated, on some level you'd think there would be fewer opportunities for discrimination and hostility.

It is really interesting. Some people did experience less discrimination, because there was no proximity. But for others—the big learning we had is people will harass people and be hostile to people no matter what the environment. They will find a way. We had thought that there would be some tool-oriented problems—as in certain tools would be worse, or certain specific features of tools would make them worse. But really it was individuals who were finding ways to harass. They didn't care if they did it in email. You have this written record of hostility, harassment, and bullying, but they didn't care. For them, it was easier to harass remotely, because there was so much privacy in those interactions. I don't have a colleague next to me while I'm yelling at somebody, so nobody is seeing me or overhearing me being a harasser. It made it easier in many ways, because they could text or they could chat. All of a sudden, these one-on-one communications became normal, and you could invade somebody's privacy in their own home in a way that you couldn't do at the office.

Were there any types of aggressions that became more common?

There was the increase in harassment and hostility. But we also found there were increases in simply work pressure. People felt like they had to be present all the time. Managers were expecting people to be available and online, and employees felt that pressure. They felt like they had to respond to emails and messages perfectly. They found they were expected to work longer hours, and that resulted in a lot of anxiety. Eighty-five percent of people at all levels and in all different types of jobs have felt more anxious since Covid-19. That creates this three-factor reinforcing problem, where people handle their anxiety poorly and are harassing or hostile to their coworkers. And they're also managing poorly, they're micromanaging. One percent of employees had their managers checking in on them 10 or more times a day. How do you even get any work done?

So there's this increased pressure. Managers are creating some of that pressure, but part of it is also just that there's anxiety during a pandemic, and people are trying to control what they can at. Some of it comes out in unhealthy ways.

How would you explain the distinction between hostility and harassment?

We use the definition from Emily Greer. She did a great presentation [video here] for the Game Developers Conference—I just really loved the way she put harassment on a spectrum. It's not just the physical touching, which is obviously harder in Covid times when everybody's working remote. It's also yelling at coworkers, or uncomfortable or repeated questions about identity or appearance. It can be a dismissive attitude; it can be things that are supposed to be jokes, but are actually quite hurtful, like put-downs. Or it's repeated requests for dates, groping or grinding, or quid-pro-quo requests for sex. Hostility can be less abusive than harassment and might not be considered something that's not allowed by company rules, but it can still be very toxic or harmful in nature. Sometimes it doesn't have a gender component or a racial component. It can just be people being bullying, or having an aggressive tone.

What are some of the recommendations for organizations to address this, or to reduce the opportunities for this to take place?

One of the biggest recommendations we have is—we know that before the pandemic, there was a lot of racism. There was a lot of sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, and all sorts of systemic bias in the tech sector, in business sectors generally, and in individual companies. Covid made it worse—Covid didn't magically solve those problems. You're going to end up going back into an environment where these problems have gotten worse, so our core recommendation is to fix those problems. Take the time to really think about your systems and your structures. This is an opportunity to experiment, to change the way you're doing things. You're going to be doing it anyway: there is a big demand from workers for hybrid workplace environments. This is a huge change. Companies are moving headquarters, and are really transforming how they've done things.

So this is an opportunity to fix all those problems. Don't bring them with you! Take the time to think about systemic harms and biases, train your employees, but also just get it out of your system. How are you doing recruiting? How are you doing promotions? How are you setting up these rules? Who is allowed to take the days off that you're recommending for all employees? Who feels comfortable doing it, whose managers are allowing them to do it, and who's being punished for doing it? Many people said, 'Okay, you can have a day off.' One of the experts that we interviewed said a lot of times those rules were implemented unevenly. Many of their clients as a psychotherapist are transgender. For a lot of the transgenders workers, they were not allowed to take time off. They were not allowed to benefit from the new rules. It's unevenly applied, and that is a huge problem within your workplace. Think about how these rules are actually being implemented and what the actual impact is. Not just your desire to create something that feels good to you, but is it actually working?

Another related piece is that people do need time off—the work expectation factor is extremely important. How do you give people time off? You have to give them real time off. It's not just saying you have a day off, but then keeping the same workload, so they're working 25% more on the days that they don't have off. It's thinking, how do I reprioritize the work that gets done? How do I make sure that the day off is a real day off, and I'm not still trying to get work out of the person. We spoke with Leanne Williams, a Stanford professor who's an expert in psychiatry and wellness, and her recommendation is that people need time for their brains to heal what we're going through. All this anxiety around Covid-19—and I would add, the anxiety from the police brutality we've been seeing and thinking about, and trying to protest and end and all of these climate impacts, like raging wildfires or storms down South. We've got people who are uprooted; we have family members who were uprooted. So it's this massive, massive trauma.

All of that is having a huge impact on the parts of our brain that are responsible for executive functioning. The brain is an actual muscle and you need to let it recover. An analogy that professor Williams used is if your body is used to run a marathon, you need to give your body time to rest and recover—we need to do that for our brains as well. It was fascinating, because another piece of brain recovery is connection with people. If you can form connections, those interactions are very healing. But we don't have that in this pandemic. We don't get that from Zoom calls, and we don't have that same kind of casual conversation—the so called water cooler conversations—anymore.

What considerations should companies that are heading towards flexible and hybrid working arrangements be examining right now?

In terms of the harassment, hostility, and discrimination, you have to realize and acknowledge that it's happening and that it's gotten worse. You can't go back to an office and expect people just to not acknowledge it. And I've seen people say, since the George Floyd murder, that they don't want to come into an office and pretend everything is okay. They don't want to not address the discrimination that they experienced, and they're not going to anymore. So are you prepared to deal with people reporting these problems in a way that you haven't had to deal with in the past? It's going to be very interesting, because many companies made a lot of statements in June and haven't lived up to them. They haven't really had a transformation to truly address these issues.

And they can't put it off any longer. People are going to come back to the office, and you are going to have interactions that are uncomfortable because we haven't addressed the racism, sexism, and all of these biases in our society. If you haven't addressed it in your workplace, they haven't gone away. They've gotten worse. The things that people can do are to figure out how to create a system where people can actually have these problems resolved. What we found in our research is that people don't trust HR, because they've been—to use their words—trained by HR that you shouldn't report. They've learned that the person who reports is treated as a problem, and the problem doesn't get solved except by punishing the person who reports. So they don't report again.

For CEOs, how are you going to retrain your HR function to actually take these problems and treat them as systemic? Trying to resolve them longer-term is going to solve you so many of these short-term problems, and will prevent deeper problems in the future. When you have this problem, you don't want to prevent the reporting; you want more reporting, so you can limit more of the behavior. Part of that is figuring out how you are going to hold people accountable—that's the biggest piece that we're missing. You need to hold people accountable. You need to make sure that they're not part of your workforce, or that they're being trained not to continue that behavior, and then going back to make sure that they haven't continued the behavior. It's holding people accountable and then making sure it actually works.

How big a part of that problem is the treatment of these issues as a legal risk or liability?

That's a huge part of the problem. It's thinking, 'I want to avoid short-term legal risk and I can train people not to report—then I don't have that legal risk if nobody's reporting any of these problems,' versus wanting an environment where people are able to collaborate and share ideas in a way that is open and professional. That's where people want to work and are doing their best work. Unfortunately, it happens everywhere, where HR is focused on legal risk because that is what they've been trained. There are so many startups that have people ops people from Google. Frankly, I don't understand it. Google has had so many problems, and now you're taking that whole system into your startup when you could do something much better. People are on this risk spectrum, where they are focused only on legal risk and not on the long-term health of their culture. It's really disturbing to me.

Part of that is that CEOs are afraid of legal risk. They don't understand it; they don't have background in it. The litigation process is brutal—if you've been through one litigation, you probably do want to avoid it. You get scared into doing the wrong thing. My hope—and I've seen some CEOs do it—is that they take a more holistic view and understand, 'I'm willing to take some legal risks because I know longer term, I need to have an inclusive culture. I need to have diversity on my teams.' We see with Gen Z and millennial workers, they want to work at a company where there's diversity and inclusion. They don't want to work at a company where it's all white people, even if they are white men themselves. They see the value of diversity and of inclusion, and that's something that they're willing to take a stand on. I'm excited about that. That is going to force people to change the way they think about inclusion, the way they think about solving these problems, and the way they think about their company cultures.

We just did a survey of people who are responsible for the return to work, and the number one concern that they expressed was inadequate training and support for managers. What does it look like to train and support managers adequately around hostility and harassment, particularly as we head into this new situation around hybrid work?

Managers are not that well-trained today. What manager would be trained to check on their employees 10 times a day? That's a manager that hasn't been trained. A lot of companies are using surveillance tools to replace good management: they want to capture keystrokes, they want video of the worker all day long. It makes no sense; it's not good management, and it creates a culture where there's no trust. It's about teaching your managers to respect employees, teaching them to trust employees and build that relationship of trust. It's not rocket science, but I don't know that companies are actually investing in that work.

A part of it is also that as you go into a pandemic and you're changing things very quickly for managers, who already aren't great managers, it became much harder. So stepping back and teaching managers how to manage generally, and then having part of that be inclusion. Just being a better manager, you'll be a more inclusive manager, but making sure you think about the ways that people fail at inclusion. What are the ways that people perpetuate discrimination and biases? Those are all important lessons and a big part of it is also that a lot of the training on harassment and managing biases is not from diverse and inclusive teams. You end up with a group that actually isn't very good at teaching people to be better, but it's incremental and not systemic.

At Project Include, we recommend that people don't take advice from their VC investors on diversity inclusion. Those teams are for the most part white and male, and the numbers show that 72% of venture capital firms are still all-male. There are so many biases in those systems. So how are they supposed to teach you how to remove the bias from your own company? Think about who you are learning from. How are they doing it? If you're looking at a one-and-done meeting, that's not going to work. People are taking a very check-box approach, like 'Legally, I need to give this harassment training, so I'll do one that is quick and easy.' It's like when you get a speeding ticket and you're doing the traffic school. It's this horrible situation where people are just making money, you're checking the box, and you just get the credit for it.

A lot of the harassment trainings feel like that. How do you actually build it into your culture and make it part of a holistic experience of learning how to manage, learning how to lead, building a healthy culture, being more transparent and open, and having better communications in general? There are a lot of great groups that are doing it, but I don't think they get to enough companies that they're thinking about it as something that can really help their company cultures. They think of it more as something that I need to do, and not something that's actually helpful. That flows down to the employees, who then say 'Oh, I need to do my harassment training. It's going to be so boring, but I'll be done for this year,' instead of 'Oh, this is something where I can learn to be a better manager and that will solve so many of my problems. And I don't have to be calling my employees 10 times a day to try to manage them, because they'll be doing the work on their own.'

How would you assess the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion in Silicon Valley—at the big companies and at the venture capital firms—and any progress that has been made?

It's incredibly incremental. There was a time where Google did not have much diversity on their AI team, so the fact that they did have some people to treat poorly, I guess, is progress. But the progress comes from the fact that the people who were discriminated against were able to tell their stories—to get their stories out and for people to believe them and support them. I think that's huge progress. When I sued Kleiner Perkins in 2012, with a trial in 2015, people did not believe me. They didn't think that a venture capital firm or the tech industry was discriminatory. For them, it was a meritocracy, and many of the reporters took Kleiner's side.

Now, when people talk about their experiences with discrimination, whether it's racial or gender or something else, I think people are much more willing to believe them, are much more willing to support them. There's more of an understanding about the structural problems and the systemic biases that are part of this industry that is very white male dominated. That's a lot of progress. Have the companies changed that much? I don't see it. You still have these problems at Google, Facebook, and Amazon. In some ways it's gotten worse, because the wealth disparity is so huge. You look at these Amazon workers and what they're being put through, and then you look at Jeff Bezos's wealth—he has over $200 billion. That happened in the last 10 years. The fact that people can't give people a living wage, and yet are so comfortable taking so much for themselves, is disturbing. That's something that's gotten worse.

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