That headline may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s the theme of an article I read recently at Wired.com. The article focuses on an employment dispute at GitHub. GitHub is a tech startup in the world of software development. Its Web site touts GitHub's ability to achieve “powerful collaboration.”
But there is trouble at the company. A former employee is going public with allegations that she was sexually harassed for two years at GitHub by an unnamed engineer. Apparently the former employee rejected the engineer’s advances. The engineer allegedly retaliated in a true engineering way – by “systematically rejecting” the former employee’s source code contributions.
Sexual harassment happens every day throughout the workplace. So what makes this case unique? What the Wired article points out is the notion that GitHub’s culture may have contributed to the problem. And the cultural trait that may have led to the problem here is the very collaborative process that GitHub prides itself on.
According to Wired, GitHub “built its operation with a 'flat' organizational structure with few, if any, middle managers or formal job titles. Rather than waiting for a rigid hierarchy of managers to give orders, employees simply rally around projects that need to be done.” Sounds pretty cool, huh? And I suspect that most any startup would agree that the hierarchy free structure is a worthy goal.
But a flat structure shouldn’t be confused with paradise. People are people. And as people, they may hit on fellow employees. And maybe retaliate if they’re rejected. Employment discrimination laws don’t provide an exemption for “flat” organizations.
Lots of companies built on a notion of being different face a rude awakening when employees complicate things. And if there really isn’t a structure, the problem may fester. Which is typically not a good thing – especially if it culminates in unflattering tweets and/or litigation. So as uncool as this sounds, a little structure is probably not such a bad thing.