July 12, 2017 / 10:01 PM / 10 days ago

U.S. tech startups fight sexual harassment with tougher policies

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Kristina Bergman made an unusual decision when she founded Integris Software in early 2016: she included an anti-sexual harassment clause firmly in her company's voting agreement with investors.

The clause calls for an investigation should any board director be accused of sexual harassment. If it is found that there was "reasonable probability" that an incident occurred, the director would be removed.

Sexual harassment by startup investors is in the spotlight in Silicon Valley after revelations of sexual misconduct led to the resignation of top partners at venture firms 500 Startups and Binary Capital.

"We wanted to create a culture of inclusion and respect supported by board members who shared those values," said Bergman, whose company's technology helps companies meet compliance mandates, in an email. "That's why we created a mechanism that forces an investor to replace the assigned director on our board should sexual harassment occur."

Bergman witnessed a sexual harassment complaint first-hand. In her last days as a principal at the Seattle venture capital firm Ignition Partners in March 2016, Bergman received an email accusing a partner of publicly groping a 20-year-old staffer at a happy hour event.

That partner, Frank Artale, resigned as managing director this week at Ignition's request after it "learned of a complaint of misconduct" on July 5, the firm said late Tuesday, citing that allegation and the 2016 incident.

"While the investigation did not substantiate the allegations, it did indicate that he demonstrated poor judgment, which we addressed with him," Ignition said in a statement.

Integris raised money from Ignition and three other venture firms following the 2016 accusation. Bergman, a former Microsoft Corp product manager, declined to comment on whether the Artale case influenced her, but called her company's anti-harassment clause "good corporate governance" that she hoped would serve as a model for other organizations.

Integris' policy is a rarity, but other startups are moving in that direction. Wizeline, a San Francisco firm whose roadmap software is used by other tech companies, in May adopted a policy that calls for an investigation anytime someone reports sexual harassment.

Employees found to have violated the policy will be fired regardless of their position, said Sung Hae Kim, vice president of people operations at Wizeline. "There's no special treatment."

Among venture capitalist firms, Foundry Group said it would enforce a "zero tolerance policy" on harassment at any company or venture firms in which it has invested. Allegations will result in immediate investigations, firm co-founder Brad Feld wrote in a June blog.

It remains to be seen how these policies will be enforced, but they are a good start, said Lisa Wang, co-founder of SheWorx, a collective of female entrepreneurs. SheWorx is developing an online database for entrepreneurs to report unethical behavior by investors.

"These are the types of tangible actions that are actually going to create change because there are real consequences for bad behavior," Wang said. "But it's one thing to have policies. It's another thing to consistently follow through with them."

(This version of the story corrects paragraph 5 to remove suggestion that anti-harassment policy was proposed after accusation was made)

Reporting by Salvador Rodriguez; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Richard Chang

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