If you live in Silicon Valley, it’s hard to miss news about deals like the recent $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, a young instant messaging company with a mere 55 employees. Or the $1 billion purchase of Instagram, a photo-sharing startup employing only about a dozen folks. Or the blockbuster deal for Waze, a small smartphone navigation company.
The lore of startup culture is by now well known. These often casual workplaces boast features like ping pong tables, 3D printer vending machines, skeeball, rock climbing walls, motorcycles, video games, draught beer taps, yoga mats and arcades. (Now television viewers can tune in to the startup world through a new HBO series.)
As hard as startuppers play, they work even harder. In their blur of 60-80 hour workweeks and caffeinated coding, dreams of being part of The Next Big Deal feed their dedication. They give up a lot of themselves and their personal lives in exchange for the elusive prospect of an early retirement. Many, though, often lose sight of the fact that there’s at least one thing they don’t give up — their rights.
California’s labor laws protect all of us, whether we work in shorts and flip-flops (or bunny slippers) in a fast and loose startup culture, or in slacks and dress shirts in a more traditional corporate environment. More than one startup has learned this lesson the hard way. The free-wheeling culture at Square Inc. has been cited by some as leading to a sexual harassment claim against the company’s chief operating officer. Then there were claims of intimidation, violence and gunplay at the heart of a retaliation lawsuit against Color Labs’ co-founder. And then there is the seminal Silicon Valley age discrimination case – Reid v. Google, Inc. – involving a 52-year-old manager allegedly referred to by managers as a “fuddy-duddy” with ideas “too old to matter.” Eventually, his termination lawsuit went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that comments like those could establish age discrimination. Finally, though well past its start-up phase, even tech giant Oracle Corporation was recently hit with a claim for retaliation by a sales manager who objected to what he says was national origin discrimination against Indian employees.
Silicon Valley interests may have successfully pushed through an 11th hour budget trailer in 2008 to end overtime pay for many computer professionals, but even in the wild world of startups, there are still laws protecting workers. The bottom line is that laws that prohibit discrimination, retaliation and harassment, statutes that require employers to accommodate disabled employees, rules that mandate overtime pay for most hourly workers — these and many other protections cover all of us, regardless of where we work.
Startup employees may sell their souls, but they should be mindful that their legal rights don’t go away as part of the bargain.