Under the glow of start-ups, social violence

An epidemic of layoffs is spreading across tech in France: the latest announcement so far, the loss of 63 jobs at refurbishment specialist Backmarket. While conditions for tech workers are getting tougher, Elise Fabing’s phone keeps ringing. “On December 23, I received five calls from employees summoned for preliminary interviews. Companies want to close the fiscal year. Christmas Eve is very violent”, says the lawyer for the start-up Balanceta. You shouldn’t trust the sweet smile or calmness of this 39-year-old from Strasbourg. Her words cut and cut.

This thin blade of social law notes, therefore, that startups are fertile ground for pre-litigation. “In young companies, cases of harassment, discrimination and unfair dismissal abound, for various reasons. I don’t have the slightest idea how to react”, is surprised by the lawyer who – although she only defends employees – sometimes conducts internal investigations in companies.

Woe to him who opposes the chiefs of gurus

The management style of certain founding bosses is also damaging. “Entrepreneurs who consider themselves to be gurus require strong personal support, in a falsely familiar and resplendent environment. Employees don’t count the hours, they give everything for their company”. Woe to those who dare to oppose the guru. “They are thrown away like rubbish and the staff is prohibited from seeing them.”

When the legal veneer – table football and after-hours snacks – cracks, the disillusionment is even more cruel. “For the person fired, it is a double pity: they are experiencing professional grief, but also a personal one, because they created another family, with profiles similar to theirs”. The startup population is particularly vulnerable. Very weakly unionized, unaware of their rights, there are many “top of the class” whose reflex is to question themselves instead of hiring a lawyer. Furthermore, in the microcosm of technology, the risks associated with reputational damage remain hidden.

Employees terrified of risk of reputational damage

“Businessmen, who are frequented a lot, threaten employees with ruining their reputation if they dare to attack”, continues the lawyer. A terribly effective weapon. As for employees who received shares or BSPCE (signature bonus), they are not spared. Some are even targets. “On the eve of a fundraiser, as if by chance, you get fired for serious misconduct,” she explains. In order not to dilute themselves at the round table, the founders chivalrously got rid of the salaried partners most endowed with shares, playing with the widespread “bad quitter” clause. Goodbye calves, cows, pigs. Those who have given up the handsome salary of a large group for the promise of enrichment then find themselves like Perrette in the fable of La Laitière…

These abuses are practiced in a legal framework that is unfavorable to start-up workers. Voted on in 2017, the Macron scale heavily favors young companies – making seniority a key criterion. Below four years of seniority, allowances are so meager that most employees cannot even afford the services of a lawyer. Compensation for harassment is limited. In cases of moral harassment, companies are condemned, on average, to 7,100 euros in compensation, says the feminist lawyer. Bad compensation. Furthermore, Elise Fabing herself only accepts a third of startup applications. Very marked by a case that led her, in the early days, to specialize in labor law-she then opened her eyes to the “very unbalanced report in favor of companies”-the lawyer does not make exceptions for whose files she makes a political fight, as the case of sexual harassment in the agency Braaxe. She has just won a round against her boss accused of sexist violence, which she hopes could set a precedent.

Encourage writing to defend yourself

In the face of abusive bosses, the unequal fight is not lost, however, believes the champion of employees. Elise Fabing invites them to “encourage writing as much as possible” and in all its forms: text messages, emails, chat, Slack messages… Since 2020, it is also allowed to record a conversation as long as it is “proportional and legitimate,” she recalls. Testimonials from third parties – colleagues, customers – can also count. Advice that the lawyer gathered in a Workplace harassment handbookwhich she wrote and designed as a “first aid kit” for employee use.

Well advised, officials can also play on the new Nation’s flaws. Because many young companies have established very poorly structured employment contracts. For example, employees can successfully claim the nullity of the “clause of the day” and obtain significant compensation. “I’ve just made an overtime billing claim of €700,000. The company agreed to €500,000.” Even in a start-up, the tide sometimes turns in the employee’s favor.

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