BetterWorks and CEO sued by ex-employee for alleged sexually suggestive assault

Beatrice Kim is suing her former employer, BetterWorks, and its CEO Kris Duggan for allegedly assaulting her in a sexual manner during a company retreat. The lawsuit also implicates the performance management software startup’s regional VP Matt Hart and VP of People Operations Tamara Cooksey for allowing sexual harassment in the workplace and not taking action against Duggan after the alleged assault was reported to the company.

Kim is suing over sexual harassment and discrimination, assault and battery, demanding a jury trial, Kim’s lawyer Conor D. Mack of Arena Hoffman LLP told TechCrunch,

“As described in the verified complaint, we intend to prove that BetterWorks CEO Kris Duggan assaulted Plaintiff Bea Kim in a sexually suggestive manner, ignoring her protests and attempts to free herself from Duggan until a co-worker had to physically intervene. We also intend to prove that BetterWorks fosters a hostile and discriminatory work environment for women by tacitly endorsing and actively covering up abusive misconduct by members of senior management.” 

TechCrunch reached out to BetterWorks for comment. CEO Kris Duggan called TechCrunch, but only gave the on-the-record statement that “We are not commenting on any pending litigation.”

BetterWorks co-founder and CEO Kris Duggan

Duggan co-founded BetterWorks in 2013 to create enterprise software so a company’s employees could set and track performance goals. BetterWorks has raised $35 million from investors, including Kleiner Perkins and Emergence Capital Partners. This week Duggan published a guest post on The Next Web titled “6 lessons every business leader should learn from Uber’s uphill culture battle.” In it, he chides Uber because “In Uber’s sexual harassment case . . . it seems the employee didn’t have an appropriate channel for raising her complaint and concerns.” Kim’s lawsuit alleges the same problem was prevalent at BetterWorks.

Lawsuit alleges assault, harassment and ignored complaints

The suit alleges that the “Plaintiff experienced a hostile working environment based on gender while working at BetterWorks, enduring vulgar and graphic jokes and comments about women, rape, and female body parts,” with jokes made by Duggan and Hart. It notes that “individuals in the highest levels of the organization encouraged, condoned, and even engaged in conduct that created the hostile working environment. Women who attempted to complain to HR and upper management were deterred from complaining and told to be a ‘cool girl’ or that ‘it’s a female issue’ and ‘cattiness’ or were simply ignored.”

Duggan allegedly told a female employee who complained about the lack of gender diversity on the sales staff that she should “tell recruiting we need to hire more boobies.”

In October 2016 during a BetterWorks two-day off-site retreat at a camp in Pescadero, California, Duggan allegedly assaulted Kim. He’s said to have consumed alcohol aggressively, danced inappropriately with female co-workers and draped his arm over a female employee inappropriately. At one point, the CEO is said to have entered a cabin and while dancing, chest-bumped a female employee repeatedly until she fell down, causing Kim to leave for another cabin.

At this point, the suit explains that:

“Plaintiff was partly laying on one of the beds in cabin #143 when Duggan entered the cabin and immediately picked up Plaintiff’s legs so that her body was in an ‘L’ shaped position while lying on her back. Her buttocks and genitalia were physically proximate to Duggan’s pelvis. Duggan then began pumping and pounding Plaintiff’s legs up and down and dancing with her legs and feet. Duggan continued to do this even after Plaintiff told CEO Duggan repeatedly, ‘Stop. It’s time to stop. I’m uncomfortable.’ Duggan ignored Plaintiff and continued to pump and pound her legs and removed her shoes, which made Plaintiff feel even more vulnerable and Scared. Plaintiff’s efforts to physically free herself were unsuccessful.

Duggan bent Plaintiff’s legs closer to her head, drawing his pelvis closer to her buttocks and genitalia and continued to pound Plaintiff’s legs (and as a result, her buttocks) up and down. Duggan also lifted Plaintiff off the bed by her ankles and legs. One of Plaintiff’s co-workers intervened and pulled Plaintiff away from Duggan. Duggan then left the room. After a brief exchange with co-workers, Plaintiff began sobbing uncontrollable and went back to her own cabin, where she sat on her bed and cried. . . Because Plaintiff did not feel safe sleeping in her room by herself, she decided to stay with one of her co-workers in the main hotel. As she was leaving the cabin, Plaintiff was horrified to find that Duggan was on the walkway outside her room, alone and intoxicated. Plaintiff’s co-workers hurried her away.”

Kim reported the incident to Cooksey the next morning. Two days later, Duggan sent a company-wide email apologizing for his misconduct and promising the company would hire an “outside employment expert” to investigate the situation and would “review and implement recommendations that the investigator makes.” But Kim alleges that BetterWorks failed to take any significant action against Duggan.

After waiting weeks, Kim says BetterWorks declined to share the results of the investigation with her, and eventually stated that Duggan did not violate the startup’s harassment policies. Kim also alleges that Cooksey dismissed other harassment complaints as “cattiness,” told victims not to file formal complaints, and instead be a “cool girl.” Kim was compelled to resign from the company. 

Kim’s lawsuit emerges as more whistleblowers stand up to report sexual harassment, discrimination and assault in the tech industry. Susan Fowler’s report about misconduct at Uber leading to its CEO’s resignation has been met with widespread support. That appears to have emboldened victims to come forward despite the risk of defamation or blackballing by potential employers, leading to the departure of partners at Binary Capital, 500 Startups and Ignition Capital.

Below is embedded the legal filing from Kim vs. BetterWorks, where Kim is suing over sexual harassment in violation of FEHA, discriminatory constructive discharge based on gender in violation of FEHA, failure to prevent harassment and discrimination in violation of FEHA, aiding and abetting harassment and discrimination, assault, battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress and negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

[Featured Image Credit: Amanda Delzell]