A surveillance startup in Silicon Valley is being accused of sexism and discrimination after a sales director used the company’s facial recognition system to harass female workers. Verkada, which was valued in January at $1.6 billion, equips its office with its own security cameras.
Last year, the sales director accessed these cameras to take photos of female workers, then posted them in a Slack channel called #RawVerkadawgz alongside sexually explicit jokes. The incident was first reported by IPVM and independently verified by Vice.
Employees told IPVM that a group of men in leadership positions on the sales team, many of whom grew up in Danville and played football together in high school, contributed to a culture of sexism.
“Face match… find me a squirt,” the sales director wrote in Slack, according to the Vice report. The post was shared alongside images of employees taken from Verkada security cameras. “‘Face search,’ as it’s called, can pinpoint an individual in a sea of faces,” reported Vice. “The pinpointed face, in this instance, belonged to a Verkada employee, her mouth wide open.”
After the Slack incident was reported to HR, Verkada CEO Filip Kaliszan gave employees in the Slack channel a choice: leave the company or have their stock options reduced. All of them chose to stay and take the stock option cut, according to Vice. “I was shocked. To me that’s not just a fireable offense, that’s a career-ending offense,” one employee told IPVM.
On October 23rd, Kaliszan sent an email to employees addressing the incident. “As soon as leadership became aware of the incident, we launched a comprehensive investigation to understand what happened and who was responsible,” he wrote. “This investigation found that one person was responsible for instigating the incident and nine other members of the team were part of the Slack channel. By the time we became aware of it, the Slack channel had been deleted; we attempted to recover it but were unable to. That said, all of the participants were promptly disciplined with penalties proportional to their role in the incident. I imposed the largest financial penalty in our company’s history on the instigator and had individual disciplinary discussions with each of the other participants.”
Verkada board chairman Hans Robertson has said publicly that he intentionally hired a team of “sales athletes,” and Verkada’s strategy is to “make the culture really fun.”
Verkada has tried to differentiate itself from Amazon’s surveillance system Ring by saying that its clients, which include Juul Labs, Equinox, and Red Lobster, do not work with law enforcement agencies. But in a YouTube video called “Verkada for law enforcement,” the company says it works with the police department of Parkersburg, West Virginia.
In a statement emailed to The Verge, a Verkada spokesperson said: “Verkada does not tolerate sexual harassment or inappropriate behavior. This isolated incident was investigated and all individuals involved were disciplined accordingly. This process included our HR department working with the women impacted by this incident–offering professional and personal resources to ensure they supported our course of action and felt safe and comfortable in their jobs.”