On Nov. 15, 2016, Angie Hilem filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that, while she worked at NextFab as a marketing specialist in 2014, she was sexually harassed by a coworker and company leadership did nothing to address the problem, according to court documents.
In the suit, Hilem, a familiar face on the Philly tech circuit who departed for San Francisco in early 2016, paints workplace culture at the Washington Avenue makerspace as sexist, saying leadership didn’t take women’s complaints about staff and member conduct seriously. She also alleges that she was fired because she spoke up about these matters. Hilem worked at NextFab for nine months from 2014 to 2015.
NextFab, in a response filed on Feb. 1, 2017, denied many of Hilem’s claims, including that leadership swept her sexual harassment complaint under the rug and that she was fired in retaliation. The response also notes that Hilem herself was an offender when it came to inappropriate talk at the office.
A scheduling conference for the case was slated for this morning.
(We should disclose that in the lawsuit, Hilem described herself as holding a “side position as a freelance contributor to Technically Philly.” She wrote three stories on a volunteer basis for us in 2014.)
Hilem declined to comment on the case, as did NextFab President Evan Malone, though Malone did say that last summer, a former employee filed a complaint against the makerspace with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
He wrote in an email:
Both during their employment, and after the EEOC complaint was filed, we thoroughly investigated the circumstances cited by the complainant. Our investigations found the claims unsubstantiated, as did the EEOC, which has declined to pursue the complaint. We have shared extensive documentation of the circumstances with our legal counsel, and we are confident of our defense.
EEOC complaints are not public information. When asked if she filed an EEOC complaint about NextFab, Hilem did not respond.
NextFab exists to bring people together from all backgrounds to pursue and execute a wide range of creative endeavors. Harassment and discrimination have no place within our organization and no place in our member community. Any complaints have always been, and will continue to be investigated and acted on as required by law and NextFab’s established policies.
In an effort to make sense of the lawsuit, we reached out to current and former NextFab employees. Of the five former employees we spoke to, a mix of men and women, most of them acknowledged some office culture issues regarding how male coworkers interacted with their female counterparts, though their responses varied with regards to how management dealt with those issues. All five former employees who spoke to us asked not to be named because they did not want to be involved with the case. (Current NextFab staffers we reached out to referred us to Malone.)
One pointed out that when she worked there, there was no designated HR staffer to deal with complaints — a point alluded to in Hilem’s suit — and it felt difficult to turn to top management because they didn’t have that expertise. “Intentions were always good, however,” she said. She thinks it was because management didn’t seem to handle initial complaints well that some women grew frustrated, which led them to file complaints about even seemingly innocuous comments.
But this ex-staffer didn’t think top management was sexist or discriminatory. She pointed out that NextFab fully paid for a female staffer’s maternity leave, going beyond what the law required. She also said she had heard that the HR situation had since improved.
Another ex-staffer, who said that she felt like some HR complaints made by women were swept under the rug, said she felt that women had to work harder than their male counterparts to prove their worth at NextFab. That was why she eventually left, she said.
One former employee remembers hearing sexist, offensive locker-room talk mostly among male staffers, while another, similar to that of NextFab’s response to the lawsuit, noted that Hilem herself would sometimes make inappropriate comments about her coworkers’ appearances. That staffer also said that, yes, there were some issues with male coworkers being inappropriate, but that management was dealing with it and didn’t turn a blind eye.
We asked Malone directly about these issues but he declined to comment.
In reporting on the Philly tech scene for the past five years, this reporter has heard similar comments from a handful of Philly tech workers about local companies and startups. One tech company employee told us that their former company’s HR system “was a joke” and that their boss didn’t take it seriously when they raised complaints about coworkers’ inappropriate behavior. Another technologist reported a similar situation, saying that their concerns were repeatedly dismissed by HR at the last place they worked.
Many early-stage startups do not have a designated HR staffer, and it seems that it’s not only a problem that plagues small companies: URBN, the publicly traded retail giant, does not have an HR department, according to a PhillyMag report. With all the energy around the region’s women-in-tech scene, it can be easy to forget that these are still very real issues. These things happen at tech companies around the globe, some more high-profile than others.
Regardless of the outcomes of Hilem’s lawsuit, this story is a reminder that it’s crucial to think about these things — HR policies, company culture, workplace diversity. The stakes are high.
Additional reporting by Roberto Torres.