Female tech worker

Three female employees sue biotech startup over toxic work culture

Tech companies have been criticized for allowing rampant discrimination and harassment in their offices in recent years. In response, some have revised their workplace policies to counter allegations of toxic work cultures. Unfortunately, such changes are often only surface-level. Employers sometimes use seemingly progressive policies to mask misconduct rather than taking concrete steps to address inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

The male-dominated tech and biotech sectors have faced a steady string of lawsuits, the latest of which has been filed against Grail. Grail is a Silicon Valley-based cancer blood test developer and a subsidiary of Illumina, the world’s biggest gene sequencing company.

Three women sued Grail, claiming that their former employer enabled a toxic work culture and failed to address their complaints about sexual harassment, racial discrimination, and retaliation. The women, who worked as high-level sales employees, alleged that the company denied them pay raises and promotion opportunities after they expressed concerns about workplace misconduct.

While the lawsuits were filed separately in Alameda, Los Angeles, and San Diego, they all accused Grail of having “a fraternity house” work culture led by senior executives as well as a “sexually charged, hostile work environment.” The women’s complaints about the inappropriate behavior were not properly addressed, according to the lawsuits. Two of the employees left Grail between late 2022 and early 2023 after sudden declines in their annual performance reviews, allegedly in retaliation for speaking out. 

One plaintiff, who was an associate director of product marketing at Grail, detailed in court documents an “epidemic of discrimination, harassment and retaliation” at the company. She accused a male sales VP of groping her at a company holiday party last year. Earlier that day, he and another male employee drank beers during a meeting in which she was making a sales pitch and asking for a promotion.

Grail employees had constant access to free beer and wine at the office. The alcohol allegedly contributed to creating an unprofessional workplace. 

The plaintiff described feeling “embarrassed, ashamed and furious.” She decided not to report the alleged sexual harassment due to fear of retaliation. Someone else, however, reported the incident to human resources. After a “sham investigation,” she was told that no evidence could be found showing that the harassment had occurred, according to her lawsuit.

Far too many workplaces fail to properly investigate harassment complaints and take action to stop unwanted behavior. A 2020 survey by Women Who Tech, a nonprofit group, found that 48 percent of women working in tech experienced harassment. However, around 67 percent of women said they did not trust their company to handle harassment allegations properly if they reported them.

The second lawsuit, filed by Grail’s director of national accounts, named the same senior executive and another female coworker who made lewd remarks. When the plaintiff complained, she later received a negative performance review while coworkers were promoted over her.

Soon after the plaintiff started working at Grail in 2020, an employee survey revealed multiple workplace issues, including gender bias, a lack of women executives, and a high number of women leaving the company suddenly. At the time, she was asked to participate in a women’s leadership group. However, she claimed that the group existed just to make it seem like Grail “was enacting progressive policies.” In reality, the company “continued to undermine and retaliate against women,” the lawsuit said.

The third lawsuit was filed by an employee in Grail’s sales department. She allegedly complained to human resources about a coworker who made repeated racist comments about Vietnamese people, such as herself and Grail patients of Asian descent. The comments were made at a company sales event. 

Despite the complaints and Grail’s “zero tolerance” policy toward such conduct, the coworker in question still received a bonus. The plaintiff, on the other hand, was fired after she notified Grail that she planned to take legal action over the alleged hostile work environment.

The three women are each seeking unspecified damages for loss of earnings and emotional distress. They are also hoping that Grail will face consequences that will deter the company from engaging in future retaliation, discrimination, or harassment.

If you have experienced misconduct in the workplace, you have important rights. Contact McCormack Law Firm to learn more about your legal options. Our San Francisco employment lawyers are ready to help you with your workplace dispute.

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