'They underestimated the impact this would have on the team'
(Bloomberg) -- The #MeToo movement has helped uncover the many ways men abuse positions of power, as well as the corporate fixers and financial settlements that enable such behaviour. But what happens at a company just getting its start, with a few dozen employees, a board consisting of three men and no HR department?
For Priyanka Wali, the experience was disillusioning. Soon after going to work for a two-year-old health-care startup in San Francisco, she said her boss touched her knee and later commented in a meeting that he “wouldn’t mind” if she were his girlfriend. Wali, a contract physician, didn’t report the alleged behavior when it occurred in 2016, she said, because the company, Virta Health, didn’t have a human resources department at the time.
The situation festered until this year, when she and a colleague filed formal complaints with the company against the same manager. Virta, which now has 165 employees and a three-person HR team, commissioned an investigation in March and found their claims of harassment to be credible, according to a copy of the report reviewed by Bloomberg.
The initial determination was that Wali would keep reporting to her boss because there wasn’t another manager available. That sparked an uproar in the office, and she was eventually reassigned to a new boss. But by then, damage had been done, former employees said. Their faith in management had been shaken, and several people said they sought jobs elsewhere as a result.
“It is already hard enough to come forward after experiencing harassment,” Wali wrote in an email to Bloomberg. “I came forward to HR, and I ended up experiencing more stress as a result and had to eventually leave my job for my own psychological wellness.”
Sami Inkinen, Virta’s CEO, said in an emailed statement that his company “immediately took the complaint very seriously, worked hard to get the process right but should have handled parts of it better.” The company held an all-hands meeting in May, he said, “to openly acknowledge where we fell short, to explain what we did right and establish the highest possible bar for handling situations like this in the future.”
A Virta spokesman said the initial decision to have Wali continue reporting to her manager was “a mistake” and that the company has taken steps to improve. The alleged harasser, Michael Scahill, no longer works at Virta. “I was very saddened and sorry to learn, years after the events, that some of my actions offended colleagues whom I respect greatly,” Scahill wrote in a email. “I never wanted to upset anyone and have apologized to those involved.”
The allegations, whispered about within the office over the last couple years, caught the attention of the San Francisco Business Times in August, when the newspaper reported on a company investigation into claims by two unnamed women. One of the women, Wali, spoke to Bloomberg, as did three other employees who were there at the time.
Their accounts, along with the investigator’s statement, shed new light on a dynamic that routinely goes unreported at very young companies and illustrates how workers can feel helpless when a startup isn’t equipped to field their complaints. California law extends sexual harassment protections to independent contractors, but neither woman has filed a lawsuit.
For all the horror stories about established corporate policies and HR departments failing to protect employees or worse, the alternative can be similarly destructive. Many entrepreneurs wait years before establishing HR departments, said Elaine Varelas, a managing partner at Keystone Partners, an HR consulting and executive coaching firm.
Startups tend to prioritize other specialties, such as finance or legal, as a cost-saving decision that can leave employees without recourse and allow culture problems to linger, Varelas said. “They say it’s for money, or they’ll say they have an employment attorney,” she said, “but it’s not the same.”
Good HR policies can be undervalued at startups, Varelas said. Companies rarely advertise their response to sexual misconduct claims, despite how commonplace the issue is today. “Women aren’t going to work at a company that ‘deals with sexual harassment well,’” she said. “It’s not an enticing ad.”
Inkinen started Virta in 2014 with two nutrition researchers and a noble mission: reverse diabetes in 100 million people. The Finland-born entrepreneur, a competitive cyclist and triathlete who once rowed across the Pacific Ocean with his wife, had little experience in health care but plenty at big companies. He worked at McKinsey & Co. and Microsoft. He then helped start and run Trulia, a real estate search engine, until Zillow Group bought the company in 2014. For Virta, Inkinen would go on to raise more than US$80 million from investors, including Venrock and Playground Global, an incubator founded by former Google executive Andy Rubin.
In Virta’s early days, the company’s chief of staff handled what typically would be considered HR responsibilities. Virta hired a head of HR in October 2016, but she lasted less than two months — departing just two days before the alleged touching began, Wali said. A new chief of staff took on HR responsibilities. But Wali said it wasn’t clear to her who was in charge of HR at that time and that she saw no options for recourse.
“I was worried that if I spoke up to someone in upper management about my boss’s behaviour, it would jeopardize my chance of being hired as a full-time physician,” Wali wrote. “I kept quiet.” About a week later, Scahill invited her to join him at a medical society gala that he had initially planned to bring his girlfriend to, she said. His reasoning, she said, was that they could network together. She declined and purchased her own ticket.
Around the same time, according to the investigator’s report, Scahill made repeated comments to another female contractor at Virta. He complimented her appearance and told her once that she was “gorgeous,” the woman told the investigator.
Workers began making efforts to communicate the alleged behavior to management in 2017. The second woman contributed feedback for Scahill’s performance review that year describing him as “too flirtatious in the workplace,” though his supervisors didn’t read the responses before passing it on to him, the company spokesman said. In a survey the next year, a male employee wrote that Scahill “has made several disrespectful comments about women.” The feedback was reviewed by a supervisor, who discussed it with Scahill, the spokesman said.
Virta hired a new head of HR in January. A couple months later, Wali discovered she wasn’t the only one with concerns about Scahill. Colleagues openly discussed his behavior at a happy hour event in the office that Wali attended. Wali filed a complaint with the new HR boss, as did the second woman.
In response, Virta hired an attorney from an employment law firm to investigate. Over the course of a week, the lawyer interviewed the two women, Scahill and six other employees. The resulting report described allegations of inappropriate comments and touching as credible and said he had stopped the behaviour after early or mid-2017.
Meanwhile, HR was staffing up. An HR representative, by then one of three people in the department, met with Wali in April and recounted the investigator’s findings, Wali said. She also learned in the meeting that she would still need to have the same boss, she said.
“I asked the HR manager how on earth I could be asked to continue reporting to someone who had touched me inappropriately and made comments to me that made me feel uncomfortable?” Wali wrote in an email to Bloomberg.
Distressed, Wali took time off to process the news. Virta management acknowledges it didn’t share the results of the investigation with staff, but word spread quickly of the report’s conclusions, former employees said. Some cited an inconsistency with what Inkinen had said the year before about taking a hard line on sexual harassment, one of the people said. Several asked their managers why Wali wasn’t offered a different boss.
Four days after Wali was told she’d keep the same boss, Virta contacted her to schedule a call about the situation. She heard from another manager four days after that saying she could now report to him. She asked him to elaborate on the decision-making process and didn’t get a clear answer, she said.
“At this point, I became very uncomfortable with how the company handled harassment in the workplace — specifically with what I felt was a lack of accountability and transparency with these decisions,” Wali wrote.
Wali and the second woman quit on the same day in early May. Soon after, Virta executives asked for Scahill’s resignation. The following Monday, Inkinen held another staff meeting, this time to apologize. He said the company had made a misstep in not taking into account the emotional safety of its workers, according to a former employee who attended. The message didn’t stop several other Virta employees from leaving and citing the handling of the complaint as an impetus, said two ex-employees.
One person who quit over the issue said they lost faith that executives took the welfare of their workers seriously. “No one reports stuff for fun,” the former employee said. “I think they underestimated the impact this would have on the team.”