Another Silicon Valley startup is being accused of ignoring sexual harassment

Betterworks kris duggan
CEO Kris Duggan is one of the defendants named in a July 11 complaint alleging a hostile work environment at BetterWorks. BetterWorks

A former BetterWorks employee is suing the company and its CEO Kris Duggan over allegations of assault, sexual harassment and a hostile work environment.

The complaint, first reported by Tech Crunch and filed in San Francisco Superior Court earlier this week, is the latest charge of sexual misconduct to come out of Silicon Valley in recent weeks, following the landmine allegations against VC Justin Caldbeck, a co-founding partner of Binary Capital.

Beatrice Kim was a customer programs lead at BetterWorks — a Silicon Valley HR software startup — for two years before she resigned in November. According to the lawsuit, she left the company one month after an incident in which Duggan allegedly got drunk during an offsite work retreat, entered Kim’s cabin, and touched her legs as she asked him to stop.

The complaint, supplied to Business Insider by the plaintiff’s lawyers, alleges assault and sexual harassment, but does not allege sexual assault.

In a phone call with Business Insider, Duggan said, “We take things like our culture and our values and the safety and happiness of our employees extremely seriously, so we’re looking into this matter. We don’t comment on pending litigation but we are taking the issue very seriously and are looking into it.”

‘A hostile work environment’

The problem with BetterWorks went way beyond Duggan’s behaviour at the retreat, according to the complaint. Several other managers are also named as culprits in creating a hostile work environment, primarily for their response to Kim’s complaints.

“Individuals in the highest levels of the organisation encouraged, condoned, and even engaged in conduct that created a hostile work environment. Women who attempted to complain to HR and upper management were deterred from complaining and told to be a ‘cool girl’ or that ‘it’s a female issue’ and ‘cattiness’ or were simply ignored,” according to the complaint.

The complaint describes an office environment of tacit acceptance of “vulgar and graphic jokes and comments about women, rape, and female body parts, and an organisation that plainly favours men and where the workplace has more in common with a boy’s club or fraternity house than a professional work environment.”

Silicon Valley’s cultural problem

Dave McClure
Dave McClure stepped down from his role as partner at 500 Startups following accusations of sexual harassment. Getty Images

This is only the latest situation to catch public interest in recent weeks, as the floodgates open up on a culture of sexual harassment among VCs and Silicon Valley startups. Often the victims are lower-level employees or female entrepreneurs who are approached sexually by colleagues, investors and men with higher clout in the industry.

Caldbeck resigned in June following a report in The Information detailing the accusations of six different women who said he behaved inappropriately. Dave McClure resigned from his role as founding partner at 500 Startups after he was accused of sexual harassment in The New York Times on June 30. A separate allegation of sexual assault followed.

As new stories come in, so does the industry reaction. Y Combinator, an influential Silicon Valley start up accelerator, emailed out an online whistle-blowing form to 3,500 entrepreneurs so they could report on sexual harassment by VCs, according to the Washington Post.

“We don’t call it a blacklist, but that is essentially what is happening,” Kat Manalac, a partner at Y Combinator, told the Post.