More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

More Episodes of Clueless in Silicon Valley:  What does the reaction say about us?

By Supreeta Sampath

The spotlight shined again this month on employer cluelessness in Silicon Valley, first with Microsoft’s new CEO telling women they’re better off waiting for karma than pushing for raises and then with the news that one multi-million dollar tech company was paying workers in Rupees.

Early this month came the disturbing comment about women and pay raises by Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, speaking (ironically) at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference.  Nadella’s mind-boggling advice to young women seeking advice on how to ask for a raise was to keep quiet – “knowing and having faith that the system will give you the right raises as you go along.”  He further opined that it’s “good karma” not to ask for a raise.  Immediately after the talk, Nadella recanted in a tweet –

Nadella tweet

That same day he issued a letter of apology to Microsoft workers telling them if they think they deserve a raise, just ask.

Then last week, EFI, a publicly-traded digital technology company was caught by the U.S. Department of Labor paying eight employees in Rupees.  That’s right, Rupees, the currency of India.  Apparently, the Fremont-based multi-million-dollar company believed that because it had flown the Indian employees from India to California for a project, it was allowed to pay the employees in Rupees, at a rate equivalent to $1.21 per hour and make them work 120 hours per week.  The consequence for this travesty?  Other than paying $40,000 in wages owed, EFI was fined a mere $3,500 by the DOL. What was the company’s response?  Let’s just say there were no apologies, simply feigned ignorance of the law.

The reaction to these events reveals a ‘sign of the times’ and the power of media to focus (or not) on work place equality.

The public and media decry of Nadella’s comments are ubiquitous.  If one types in any combination of “Nadella”, “Pay” and “Women” into any search engine, the results are prolific. Ranging from tweets of dismay and disgust, to thoughtful editorial pieces criticizing Nadella in major news magazines, the country passionately leaped into its discussion about gender equality in the work place. Perhaps most notable is the equal abundance of pieces (including in the New York Times) spinning Nadella’s blunder into a positive and needed opportunity to continue discussions about the gender divide.

In stark contrast to the national reaction over the Nadella debacle, you will be hard pressed to find any significant media coverage over EFI’s unlawful conduct.  Media attention was short-lived and confined to local stations.  I found only one article condemning the behavior and guffawing at the paltry DOL fine.  So where are the bloggers, tweeters and national media commentators decrying wage theft and worker exploitation?  Why is there a lack of any meaningful response expressing shame and disgust over this blatant example of corporate greed? And has anyone asked whether EFI would have paid British workers in Pounds (with a $1.61 exchange rate) if they had been slogging away in California for the company?  Why is no one furious that a company reporting close to $200 million in revenue in its last financial quarter got away with a $3500 fine?

Perhaps with recent political victories like the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Cheryl Sanberg exhorting women to “Lean In” – it is more socially acceptable and sexy to debate the merits of fair pay and gender equality in the work place than to focus on the unrelenting reality of labor exploitation.  Perhaps Microsoft is cleverer and has a better Communications Department assisting in rehabilitating Nadella and Microsoft’s reputation through widespread “positive spin” pieces?  Perhaps it is all of this.

Don’t get me wrong, as a woman and a workers’ rights advocate, I am thrilled that Nadella’s comments have put needed attention on pay and gender equality in the workplace.  But as a woman and worker’s rights advocate, it’s clear to me that the bigger lesson can be learned from the different ways these two employer “mishaps” have been reported by the media and digested by the masses.

Minimum wage, wage theft and worker exploitation may not be as alluring as gender equality in the year 2014, but they are equally vital to our national economy and collective moral conscience.

 

Supreeta Sampath

About Supreeta Sampath

Supreeta Sampath is the founder of The Sampath Law Firm located in San Francisco, California. For over a decade, her legal career has been dedicated to serving the needs of those who have been denied justice. Ms. Sampath has extensive experience representing workers in employment discrimination cases on account of race, national origin, religion, gender, disability, age, sexual harassment, retaliation as well as cases involving labor code violations. From 2011-2014 she has been named a Rising Star in the field of Labor and Employment by Super Lawyers Magazine.

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

Sweat, blood, tears and stock options: the labor laws that protect all of us, even startup entrepreneurs

By Daniel Velton

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.

 

Daniel Velton

About Daniel Velton

Daniel Velton began his career with the largest labor and employment law firm in the world. Using that experience, he brings valuable knowledge and perspective to his current practice, in which he exclusively represents employees in individual and class action discrimination, wrongful termination, harassment, wage and hour, and other employment cases.

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