On Tuesday after the publication of this piece, Verkada’s co-founder and CEO Filip Kaliszan issued a new statement saying the company had changed its decision on the disciplinary action taken against the offending employees and had now terminated them.
“Upon a further review of this incident and feedback from several employees about how it was initially addressed, we have terminated the three individuals who instigated this incident, engaged in egregious behavior targeting coworkers, or neglected to report the behavior despite their obligations as managers.On Friday, I felt confident that we had dealt with this issue fully and appropriately. However, it is clear that my handling of this incident fell short of our commitment to maintaining the supportive work environment our employees deserve. I take responsibility for that, I apologize, and I hope this action will demonstrate to all of our employees that Verkada does not, and will never, tolerate this kind of behavior.
– Filip Kaliszan, Co-Founder and CEO of Verkada”
The original story follows below:
Verkada, a fast-growing Silicon Valley surveillance startup, equips its offices in downtown San Mateo, California, with its own state-of-the-art security cameras.
Last year, a sales director on the company's sales team abused their access to these cameras to take and post photos of colleagues in a Slack channel called #RawVerkadawgz where they made sexually explicit jokes about women who worked at the company, according to a report in IPVM, which Motherboard independently verified and obtained more information about.
"Face match… find me a squirt," the sales director wrote in the company Slack channel in August 2019, according to one screenshot obtained by Motherboard.
The comment was posted along with a series of photos of employees’ faces captured with the office's surveillance system which were patched together using a Verkada facial recognition feature. "Face search,” as it’s called, can pinpoint an individual in a sea of faces. The pinpointed face, in this instance, belonged to a Verkada employee, her mouth wide open. In addition to verifying the incident with three sources who worked at Verkada at the time, Motherboard compared the format of the images posted to those included in Verkada's publicly available demo videos to verify that they were indeed captured by the company's surveillance cameras.
Two members of the Slack channel reacted with laughing emojis. Another commented "lol."
According to three sources who worked at Verkada at the time, the group of men posted sexually graphic content about multiple female employees in similar Slack messages.
After the Slack channel was reported to the company's Human Resource team in February, Verkada's CEO Filip Kaliszan announced in a company all-hands meeting that an undisclosed number of employees active in the Slack channel were given the choice between leaving the company or having their share of stock reduced. All of them chose the latter option, and the Slack channel was removed, according to four employees who worked at Verkada during the time.The person who posted the screenshot still works at Verkada.
Verkada, which was founded in 2016 in Kaliszan’s living room, sells machine vision security cameras with cloud-software, including dome cameras, fisheye lenses, and footage viewing stations that can be monitored from anywhere in the world. The company sells to a roster of high profile clients, including Equinox, Juul Labs, Red Lobster, Siemens, Pasadena City College, the city of Memphis, and dozens of other corporations and government entities. Its YouTube page advertises systems for law enforcement, governments, and corporations. Its ambition is to "be the operating system that runs every building in the world," the company says. Verkada software allows users to immediately detect all footage of a particular person of interest, rather than forcing people reviewing the tape to search through hours of video. Kaliszan describes Verkada's mission as "building the world's best video security system." In early 2020, the company was valued at $1.6 billion, and its workforce had grown to just over 400 employees.
The company has a series of demo videos on its YouTube which show the use of Verkada cameras at its own offices. Besides being used in demonstrations of its technology, these cameras have been used to sexually harass employees. They've also been used to surveil Verkada itself: For example, sources at the company explained that the company had an indoor, maskless party in September. Evidence of the party was provided to Motherboard using captured surveillance footage from its cameras.
When asked for comment about the sales team's use of the company's video surveillance system to target women colleagues, a spokesperson for Verkada 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.
The spokesperson added that in the eight months since management became aware of the situation, Verkada has held a mandatory sexual harassment training via Zoom, and estabilished three employee resource groups, for women, people of color, and LBGTQ employees at the company.
Four current and former employees who spoke to Motherboard on the condition of anonymity were furious by the company's decision not to terminate the men who’d posted sexually graphic content about their coworkers in the Slack channel—but said that the incident is just one example of sexism at Verkada that its co-founders Kaliszan and board chairman Hans Robertson have chosen to downplay.
"Any other tech company," a former Verkada employee told Motherboard, "would have immediately fired those people. They should never ever be able to get another job at a tech company ever again, but the higher ups on the sales team have a lot of power and are encouraged and can do whatever they want as long as they bring in a lot of revenue. Verkada's singular value is making money."
"I think it's 100 percent fair to say I left Verkada because of the culture," another former employee told Motherboard. "I didn't feel comfortable working under my director after learning about the incident. The worst part of it was that it seemed like the men in this crew continued to be celebrated and remained in leadership positions. That's how [management] has made the toxic culture they've created okay."
Since its founding, Verkada has tried to distinguish itself from Ring, Amazon's home surveillance system, which has partnered with at least 400 police departments in the United States, and actively cooperates to share footage belonging to private individuals with the police. Unlike Ring which sells home surveillance systems, Verkada proudly advertises that its corporate clients don't work with law enforcement, and that data collected by corporations and other institutions it does business with belongs to them alone. But on its YouTube channel, Verkada advertises its work with law enforcement agencies such as the police department of Parkersburg, West Virginia.
In January, Kaliszan told TechCrunch “we don’t have any arrangements with law enforcement like Ring. We view ourselves as providing great physical security tools to the people that run schools, hospitals and businesses. The data that those organizations gather is their own.”
Many of the technologies it has developed such as facial recognition and environmental sensors that can detect vaping in schools or a human presence in a room, have been criticized for expanding a system that serves to protect property owners and is often weaponized against people of color and other vulnerable populations.
In March, in the lead-up to a company wide all-hands meeting, employees voted on questions that they wanted addressed by management. One question about Verkada's response to the Slack episode, received 127 upvotes, according to screenshots reviewed by Motherboard, the most of all of those submitted. “Why are the men who sexually harassed their female colleagues able to keep their jobs? Is this setting the right example and sustaining a safe work environment?”
Three employees present at the meeting told Motherboard that management did not address the question.
Prior to late-October, when Motherboard reached out to Verkada for comment on the Slack incident, the company had yet to formally inform employees that the company's surveillance system had been abused by sales team members. This past Friday, after Motherboard asked for comment and more than 9 months after the company learned about the Slack incident, Kaliszan sent a company-wide email finally addressing the incident.
"Last year on August 8, 2019," Kaliszan wrote, "a member of our sales team misused access to our office camera footage–access that everyone on our team is afforded and that the sales team uses frequently to demo the product for potential clients–and shared a screenshot of a coworker on a private Slack channel with vulgar commentary."
"As soon as leadership became aware of the incident,” he wrote, “we launched a comprehensive investigation to understand what happened and who was responsible. 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…. 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."
Four employees who worked in different teams throughout Verkada said that the culture of sexism at the company largely emanated from a cliquey group of high-ranking white men on the sales team, many of them who grew up and played high school football in same wealthy enclave, Danville, California, some of whom went on to play for the NFL.
"If you’re not invited into that core group of guys, you have a hard time moving your career forward or getting promoted," a former sales employee told Motherboard. "The word frat is thrown around at Verkata a lot because there are guys that protect each other at the company. That’s this crew from Danville. They’re like a frat."
In April, after the Slack incident, in a "fireside chat," Verkada's board chairman Hans Robertson told a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that he had intentionally hired a team of "sales athletes," that he had modelled after the sales team at Dell EMC, a subsidiary of Dell Technologies, "which was famous for hiring half the Northeastern football team." Robertson explained Verkada's sales strategy was "to get rid of underperformers very quickly" and "make the culture really fun."
At least two of the men involved in the Slack post obtained by Motherboard, played high school football at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, California. According to an article in the industry trade journal IPVM, at least five senior sales team members played sports at San Ramon Valley High School.
"It's the most horrible company I've ever worked for," another former employee who recently quit working at Verkada told Motherboard. "Even beyond the Slack incident, you know people don’t want to stay for long. Everyone wants to stay there for the potential money they could make, but especially for women it’s hard to stay there. I was oversold in the interview process. There’s no support. They don’t care about you."
Motherboard spoke to one member of the sales team who said she enjoyed Verkada's work culture and thought the company’s response to the Slack incident was adequate. "As soon as management found out [about the Slack incident], they disciplined not just the person who made the comment, but anyone who was in the Slack channel," she said. "I felt like they took it very seriously. I have always felt comfortable here."
Another Verkada employee wasn’t optimistic about Verkada's mission after learning about the Slack incident, "the big picture for me having worked at the company is that it has opened my eyes to how surveillance can be abused by the people in power."