Maybe it’s no wonder that, to deflect such criticisms, a growing number of on-demand management teams and investors have begun suggesting that a third classification of worker – one poised to enjoy both flexibility and greater worker protections – is around the corner.
During a panel that StrictlyVC moderated in May, Simon Rothman of Greylock Partners, whose bets include the food-delivery startup Sprig, told attendees, “I personally think the 1099 [tax classification] framework is broken. It existed in a world of monolithic, centralized corporations, not in a world of distributed companies, so I think there needs to be a third class of worker [and that we’ll eventually have one], though it will take a while.”
Longtime employment attorneys say not to count on it.
For more of this story, read on.
On Friday, jurors concluded that Ellen Pao, a former junior partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, was neither discriminated nor retaliated against by the famed venture capital firm when she was passed over for promotions and ultimately fired.
It was a dramatic conclusion to the five-week trial of Pao, who is today the interim CEO of the site Reddit. It’s also the beginning of more discrimination lawsuits in Silicon Valley, say employment attorneys who’ve seen the same patterns across the securities, legal, and medical industries over the years and who believe the smaller, more insular, male-dominated venture industry has just been set on the same path by Pao’s high-profile case.
In fact, they say, both junior employees and their firms can learn a few things from what just happened.
Most importantly, it will never be easy, winning a discrimination claim in court. According to longtime employment attorney Gary Phelan of the East Coast firm Mitchell & Sheahan, cases today tend to feature much more subtle types of discrimination than they did 10 or 20 years ago, meaning there are “no smoking guns” typically but rather “a series of pieces that, put together, may or may not equal discrimination.”
In Pao’s case, the jury concluded that the pieces didn’t add up to a judgment against Kleiner, but that doesn’t mean discrimination based on gender didn’t play any role. “In many trials,” says Phelan, “part of it may be gender, age, race, disability, personality, performance – it’s never clearly one thing or another.” (If it were, it would likely settle before reaching a courtroom.)
Saving up material for a court battle can prove a double-edged sword, too, says Phelan, referring to the 700,000 pages of documents that Kleiner’s defense team accused Pao of having amassed over the years.
While junior partners might be inclined to record even more of their contributions in the wake of the Pao verdict, Phelan warns that clients with “lots of documentation” are “encouraging and scary at the same time. If you have a client who perceives every negative as discrimination and writes down everything, that’s not necessarily a good sign. It’s often someone who may be paranoid or someone who, by documenting everything, is perceived as trying to build a case that otherwise isn’t there.”
That doesn’t mean firms should sit back and relax for now.
Many have probably already taken a harder look at the way their partnership and employee agreements are written and whether, if they are sued, they can send a case to arbitration, where the proceedings are private and legally binding. (The arbitration agreements that Pao had signed related to Kleiner’s agreements with its limited partners, not an employment agreement with the firm. That’s why Pao was able to land the court case she wanted.)
Firms need also think more about their HR practices. “You have people in this industry who say they’re changing the world, and in many ways they are,” says Phelan. But “thinking that you’re dealing with much bigger things than unconscious biases and HR practices — viewing them as a nuisance — tends to work to the disadvantage of females.” (Kleiner’s lack of well-defined HR policies didn’t hurt it in the end; the next firm might not be so lucky.)
Not last, more firms will need to hire more women into their ranks, even if it takes longer than many women might like. “Kleiner won, but it hurt them, and venture firms shouldn’t conclude that they don’t have to worry about this,” says Phelan.
“Change is always incremental” but lawsuits have slowly begun to transform numerous industries over the years, including Phelan’s own. (According to the research organization Catalyst, women accounted for 22 percent of law firm partners in 2013, up from roughly 13 percent in 1995.) He says “there will be more” lawsuits that target venture firms, as well. “Once something like this case gets so much attention, people start to wake up and pursue their rights.”
Longtime employment attorney Cliff Palefsky of McGuinn, Hillsman & Palefsky in San Francisco agrees. The Pao lawsuit “has had unfortunate effect on a lot of people, including Ellen and Kleiner’s privacy and dignity,” he says. “But in terms of the debate it has created and its focus on the subtle forms of discriminations that absolutely go a long way in explaining the dearth of women in technology and venture capital, a social purpose has been served by it.”
One public lawsuit “will do more to change the environment than 100 cases that land in arbitration,” Palefsky adds.
The gender discrimination and retaliation case of Ellen Pao versus Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has enthralled Silicon Valley in recent weeks, with everyone now focusing on what a jury that’s set to begin deliberations will decide.
But one of the many, bigger questions the trial has raised is whether it will impact how venture capitalists nurture talent and groom junior people to become partners.
If it isn’t top of mind for many partnerships, it should be.
On the stand last week, Kleiner Perkins general partner Matt Murphy described the promotional path at the storied firm as “fuzzy,” explaining to jurors that when he’d come aboard in 1999, you “just weren’t going to become a partner. You stayed two years, then you went to an operating company.”
As Murphy and then-colleague Aileen Lee were promoted to more senior roles, a “fuzzy process” of promotion began to develop that led to less collegiality and more self-interested maneuvering at the firm, Murphy testified.
That murky process also played a starring role in Pao’s lawsuit, which is why Joseph Sellers, the head of the civil rights and employment practice group at Cohen Milstein in Washington, D.C., suggests partnerships adopt a more structured promotional path than many feature today.
Explains Sellers: “There are certain types of workplaces where the path to advancement isn’t as well defined as others, and in some people’s minds, that might look to provide some protection; with a poorly defined path, it’s harder to hold people accountable for decisions.” The reality, adds Sellers, is that “what might be legitimate grounds on which to deny somebody advancement could be perceived as being influenced by something impermissible.”
Asking venture firms to be more transparent about how they choose general partners is easier said than done, of course. When it comes to the promotional paths of most firms, it’s “part fraternity, part sorority rush,” notes Cliff Palefsky, a top employment and civil rights lawyer in San Francisco. “It’s always a question of: Who do you want to hang out with?”
Murphy told jurors last week that promotions at Kleiner depend on a “critical mass of partners within the firm who are saying, ‘We want this person to be promoted . . . There have to be enough people around the table who want this person to be a partner and to work with them for a long time.”
Given that partnerships typically last at least 10 years and involve shared economics, it’s understandable to a point, too. “There’s very much an are-you-like-me orientation that comes into play in a small partnership,” says Palefsky. “Who do you trust? Who do you go to battle with? Those are the kinds of things that sunk Ellen. No one trusted her.”
The irony is that Pao – as well as Trae Vassallo, another female partner who is no longer actively investing on behalf of the firm – have been revealed as big money makers for Kleiner, even if they didn’t quite fit in longer term.
If Pao had gotten her way, Kleiner would have backed Twitter years earlier than it did and made a far richer return. She also lobbied to invest in RPX, a company that later enjoyed a successful offering, and Climate Corp., a company that was acquired seven years after its founding for roughly 10 times what investors poured into it. (Kleiner invested in RPX; it passed on Climate Corp.)
Vassallo, meanwhile, played a key role in Kleiner’s investment in Nest Labs, which sold to Google for $3 billion last year. She also led the firm’s investment in Dropcam, the camera company that sold to Nest Labs for $550 million last year. (According to two sources, Dropcam liked Vassallo so much that Kleiner’s investment in the company was contingent on securing her as a board member.)
Says Palefsky: “One thing this trial highlighted is how men and women can be held to a different standard without people realizing it, and how you can be a successful venture capitalist without being an identical twin to the person who came before you.”
Helping startups with strategic decisions and recruiting is great, but “you can be great on the board of a company that’s failing,” he says. Ultimately, he says, “What matters is whether the fund goes up or down because of how well you can analyze a business. And there’s zero reason a man would be better than a woman in doing that.”