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What's driving people out of tech biz? Unfair treatment, harassment, funnily enough – study

Bosses must fix workplace culture

Analysis Among the reasons people leave jobs in the technology industry, the most common, according to a study released last week, is unfair treatment.

Unfairness in this context represents a variety of ills: unfair management practices – like passing people over for promotion or misattributing credit for work done – stereotyping, and sexual harassment.

The Kapor Center for Social Impact, with the help of Harris Poll and funding from the Ford Foundation, surveyed 2,006 adult US residents who left a tech industry job within the past three years.

Of those participating in the Tech Leavers survey [PDF], 37 per cent cited unfair treatment in the workplace as the major reason for leaving. Other reasons were: work environment dissatisfaction (25 per cent), being recruited by another organization (22 per cent) and dissatisfaction with their job responsibilities (19 per cent).

In the group of people leaving for a better opportunity (35 percent), 15 per cent also indicated that unfairness played a role in the decision to leave. And for those recruited by other companies, a quarter said unfairness played a role in their exit.

Click to enlarge graph

"We left the definition of unfairness intentionally undefined in the survey, since we were most interested in employees' own self-defined experiences and perceptions of unfairness and mistreatment," explained Dr Allison Scott, chief research officer at the Kapor Center and the study's author, in an email to The Register.

Scott said the study did not specifically address compensation fairness issues such as lavish executive pay, but acknowledged it's an area of concern. "We know that pay equity is a major issue, both between demographic groups and between executives and staff," she observed. "This is an area we would like to explore in future research."

Uber, already a litigation magnet, has become the warning label for workplace toxicity. In February, Susan Fowler, a former Uber site reliability engineer, published a blog post recounting alleged sexual harassment at the company. The post claimed that when she joined Uber in November 2015, her engineering group was 25 per cent women.

"By the time I was trying to transfer to another eng organization, this number had dropped down to less than 6 per cent," Fowler wrote. "Women were transferring out of the organization, and those who couldn't transfer were quitting or preparing to quit."

The allegations, echoed by others, prompted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to hire former US Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate the claims.

Such departures cost tech companies approximately $16 billion per year, the survey says, based on the assumption that replacing a tech professional costs $144,000 per employee in terms of lost productivity, recruiting costs, salary, and related expenses.

For a tech company that employees 10,000 engineers with an average salary of $100,000 per year, a 5 per cent turnover rate – with 37 per cent driven by unfairness – would cost $27m in talent driven away, the survey says.

The replacement cost used (~1.5 times salary) may be on the low side. A 2012 paper from the Center for American Progress puts the average economic cost of skilled worker turnover at 213 per cent of the job's annual salary.

Beyond the economic cost to companies, the Tech Leavers survey points to a reputational cost, noting that 35 per cent of former employees said they'd be less likely to advise others to pursue job opportunities at their former employer, and that 25 per cent said they'd be less likely to tell others to buy or use products from the offending company.

Workplace unfairness is not exclusive to tech companies but it's more common there. According to the survey, "Employees in the tech industry were significantly more likely to leave due to unfairness than technical employees in the non-tech industry (42 per cent v 32 per cent)."

"It is clear that the tech sector needs to pay more attention to workplace culture and the development of inclusive work environments which are supportive for employees from all backgrounds," Scott noted. "Efforts to improve recruitment and hiring practices to attract a broader range of candidates will not be successful if those employees then leave due to the lack of inclusiveness and bias- and harassment-free workplaces."

Scott advised companies to implement diversity and inclusion strategies, to create inclusive corporate cultures, and to develop effective and fair management practices.

"Having diversity and inclusion initiatives as an afterthought or 'nice-to-have' will not change overall company culture and is not likely to change the demographic makeup of companies," said Scott.

"A holistic approach is needed to ensure that environments are supportive, welcoming, and provide space for innovation, leadership and creativity – while at the same time providing fair compensation, management, promotion and growth opportunities for all employees." ®

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