Recent discrimination lawsuits filed by former employees against Facebook and Twitter, serve as a reminder of the importance of having robust sexual harassment and equal employment opportunity policies in place. In Chia Hong v. Facebook, Inc., et al., which was filed on March 16, 2015 in the Superior Court of California in and for San Mateo County, former Facebook employee Chia Hong, who is Taiwanese, alleges that during her employment at Facebook she was discriminated against and harassed on the basis of her gender, race and nationality in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Hong, who worked as a Technology Partner, further alleges that she was terminated in retaliation for complaining about the alleged mistreatment.

Three days after the commencement of the Hong lawsuit, Tina Huang, a former software engineer at Twitter, filed a class action complaint for sex discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act against Twitter in the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco. (See Huang v. Twitter, Inc., Case No. CGC-15-544813, Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco). The class action lawsuit alleges that Twitter’s system for promoting employees is not fully disclosed to the workforce and is biased against female employees.

The Hong and Huang cases have sparked great interest in Silicon Valley and the media at large, especially in light of the recent trial in the high-profile gender discrimination case brought by Ellen Pao against her former employer venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Despite the fact that Pao did not prevail on her claims, with the jury on March 27, 2015 ruling that Kleiner Perkins had not discriminated against Pao, Pao’s actions may have served as inspiration for the Hong and Huang actions and may inspire additional discrimination suits in the technology industry.

These lawsuits come during a time where Silicon Valley companies have been under scrutiny in the media for their lack of diversity. For instance, the Diana Center at Babson College reports that only 6% of venture capital partners are women.  At Kleiner Perkins, about 20% of the venture capital partners are women. Facebook, per a diversity report released in 2014, has a global staff that is 31% female and 69% male.  Only 15% of Facebook’s technical employees are female. Similarly, Twitter’s diversity report from 2014 states that 30% of the company is female, but just 10% of the technical employees are female.  The overall lack of diversity in the Silicon Valley technology industry could make the industry an attractive target for further discrimination suits.

As previously discussed in the January 22, 2015 blog post, Five Employment Law Pitfalls Start-Ups Should Avoid, under “federal law (and many state and city law counterparts), an employer can demonstrate that having both a sexual harassment policy with a complaint procedure (so employees can let the company know if harassment or discrimination is occurring in the workplace) is a defense to a sexual harassment or other discrimination claim.” In light of the recent spate of discrimination lawsuits brought against the technology industry and the increased focus on the need to address industry-wide diversity issues, technology industry employers should review their current policies and procedures to ensure that they are in compliance with federal, state and local laws. Employers, given the current environment, should also consider implementing employee training programs on anti-harassment and anti-discrimination and retaliation policies as an aide to fostering and developing a culture that does not accept or promote discrimination. Epstein Becker & Green, P.C., attorneys can assist with updating existing, or developing new, policies to comply with federal, state and local anti-harassment and discrimination laws and with developing and providing training to the workforce.

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