Brogrammers Making Sex Jokes and Other Reasons Startups Need HR Departments

Photograph by Anthony Harvie

When I worked at a startup, we jokingly referred to our “HR department”—a cardboard box that held resumes, NDAs, tax forms, whatever. Perhaps not coincidentally, we also played beer pong and Texas Hold ‘Em in the office. Mostly that was part of the fun of working there, but when one of our developers lifted my Facebook log-in to post some jokey stuff on our site under my name, that cardboard box suddenly felt like a woefully inadequate advocate.

I thought about that this week, when I read about the software developer who lost his job for making some sexual jokes in the audience at a tech conference, and about Adria Richards, the woman who snapped his photo and called him out on Twitter. She lost her job, too; the company she worked for was hit with a DDOS attack.

It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is lousy with brogrammers and short on women, and that imbalance—combined with a culture that eschews meetings, titles, and pants—probably leads to a lot of questionable jokes and uncomfortable situations.

But the overreaction here—they got fired—may be one of the better arguments for moving the human resources department out of the cardboard box. HR is a hard department to love, with its annoying slogans and its schizophrenic mandates: Support employees and avoid lawsuits. They’re professional buzzkills, there to remind employees that the joke isn’t funny, the poster isn’t appropriate, and the beer pong in the conference room has to stop. In tech, especially, where billion-dollar companies trace their roots to dorm rooms and work is social, killjoys aren’t welcome.

Still, there’s something to be said for the finger-wagging adults. In this case, it’s not so much the rules that matter—we all pretty much know what those are, even if we ignore them. It’s the consequences for breaking them.

Even in a non-union world, where worker-protection is slim to none, there ought to be a process for people who cross the line: a warning, a training, an apology. Or maybe you do get fired. But it shouldn’t be reactionary or capricious. If HR is great at one thing, it’s process—and for all the times that process is annoying, it can save startups from themselves.