30 April 2023
I was laid off in November of 2022, in retaliation for anti-discrimination whistleblowing.
Under normal circumstances, I would be forbidden from discussing this. In fact, I am bound by NDA not to disclose many of the specific details of my experience at Rune Labs, but thanks to Washington’s Silenced No More Act (RCW 49.44.211), my ability to speak about discrimination, harassment, or retaliation that I have witnessed in the workplace is legally protected. 1
Furthermore, I have since learned that my former employer is actively recruiting from the very communities that it disproportionately targeted in this layoff. For this reason I feel ethically obligated to go public with my experience, in order to protect women, gender nonconforming folks, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
So in this article, I will outline why I have sufficient reason to believe that my former employer has violated US anti-discrimination labor laws 2. It is my hope that sharing my story with the public will help keep my community safe.
Let’s start at the top.
Rune Labs is a brain data technology startup based in San Francisco, California. They specialize in the creation of tools for clinicians, researchers, and patients with Parkinson’s disease, to identify markers of symptom progression and improve standards of care.
Rune Lab’s platform ingests, among other things, data from deep brain stimulating (DBS) devices such as the Percept, which people with Parkinson’s disease use to monitor the brain via electrical signals. High-fidelity time-series data from these implants can be used to correlate changes in symptoms with adjustments in medication or other types of treatment. Since memory loss is often a symptom of Parkinson’s disease, the historical insights provided by dashboarding tools such as those created by Rune Labs can, in theory, allow clinicians to gather more information than a patient could recall on their own. This maximizes the efficiency of specialist visits, which are generally infrequent and short on time.
In addition to their core engineering teams, Rune Labs employs a team of data scientists who actively use their own tooling with the goal of identifying biomarkers, or someday even a cure for, Parkinson’s disease. It is this core mission, which I believe is a genuine net good for humanity, that initially drew me to Rune Labs.
I was employed as a technical project manager from August 2021 until November 2022. At the time that I joined the company, I was the only project manager, and was personally responsible for overhauling the startup’s laissez-faire SDLC.3
It’s important to understand that Rune Labs has an indisputable, documented history of discrimination and harassment at the executive level, which predates the story I’m going to share in this article. In 2021, co-founder and then-CTO Miro Kotzev, along with a personal hire of his who skipped our internal review process, engaged in a months-long campaign of harassment against two transgender employees. I know this because I was one of them.
A thorough internal investigation concluded that his behavior constituted a clear-cut example of a hostile workplace environment, and that his employment could not continue 4. Ultimately, Miro resigned before his termination could be served, and seems to have since exited tech entirely, as he is now listed as “retired” on LinkedIn. I hope he’s having a great time.
Under normal circumstances, I would consider this matter to be settled, and I wouldn’t bring it up again. But I believe it is essential to establishing my credibility, as well as a pattern of Rune Lab’s unacceptable and illegal behavior at its highest levels.
So, with that established:
On two occasions in the third quarter of 2022, I raised concerns about what I believed to be discriminatory performance evaluation and termination practices, as well as deviations from company policy which adversely impacted effectiveness and psychological safety across the organization. Immediately after raising these legally protected concerns, adverse actions were taken against me including, but not limited to, my termination.
Out of respect for the impacted employees, I will be redacting the names of claimants, as I do not want to disrupt their ability to find future employment. They’ve suffered enough.
On June 1st, I received feedback from “Persona A” via Slack and later text, that she felt she was being discriminated against in the workplace. She said she had watched a presentation I had given that day about workplace bias which had resonated with her, and that Lean In’s anti-discrimination resources had provided her the language she needed to describe her experience. I asked Person A for some details, and opened a formal discrimination investigation with HR, in accordance with my obligations as a manager and with state laws.
In the process of this investigation, I determined that her supervisors were evaluating her performance unfavorably due to a combination of her gender identity and race, and providing more mentorship and applying more lenient quality standards to white & male employees. The Head of Human Resources, Natalie Cleaver, agreed with my assessment.
Since both of the individuals named in the report were members of the executive team, I believed that swift disciplinary action was unlikely. In order to provide immediate relief, I began to explore other areas at Rune Labs where Person A could work, in order to distance themselves from the executives in question while the report was processed. Person A was interested in moving laterally in the organization and learning a new discipline, which she had previously shown great aptitude for. With the support of HR, I created a written proposal in Google Drive to relocate Person A into my own organization as a junior project manager, which directly corresponded with her strengths and interests, and would remove her from a hostile work environment. I offered to personally train her as I would any other junior hire, in the event she was missing domain knowledge.
Human Resources approved of the proposal and began to work on a formal job description and offer for a change in role, which Person A was genuinely excited for.
Meanwhile, my proposal was met with resistance via private Slack DM’s from senior leadership (VP of engineering Ram Balasubramanian directly, and also triangulated indirectly from the very individuals named in the discrimination claim) who asserted that Person A was “too aggressive” to succeed in the new role. Behaviors that were regularly rewarded in white, male peers, such as taking initiative to perform needed duties outside the scope of their role, were instead framed as negative indications of focus. At this time, leadership had made no attempt to interview Person A directly. Based on legally mandated bias training that I had received, this reinforced my conclusion that discrimination was occurring, and that Person A would not be safe to continue working under her current management.
I provided written guidance to Ram, who was also my supervisor, on the ways in which this “vibes based” determination of inadequacy constituted sex bias and workplace discrimination, and asked him to please speak with Person A and HR jointly. He declined. The tone of my 1:1’s with Ram, and more broadly with senior leadership, became antagonistic and cold for the remainder of my employment.
The morning her transfer was meant to take place, Person A showed up for work in their new role, to learn she had instead been terminated without warning.
My protests were ignored, and no adequate explanation was given. I was told to drop it.
I have sufficient reason to believe her termination was triggered by her filing that complaint.
Shortly thereafter, an engineer of color on one of my teams that I will refer to as Person B was suddenly terminated.
Person B had previously received critical feedback regarding the velocity of their work, and while I was not his direct manager, as TPM I was responsible for evaluating their ongoing performance during the course of each sprint and providing updates to the leadership team as to his progress. I had noted substantial improvement in their velocity and the quality of their contributions, and collected feedback from their peers which corroborated that substantial improvements had been made.
In fact, just a few days earlier Person B’s manager had provided written feedback to me that his performance had improved significantly and “was no longer on any performance improvement plan”.
I provided this and other documentation to Ram via Slack that performance reviews from his direct supervisor contradicted the reason provided for his termination, and asked for clarification, which I did not receive.
Meanwhile, psychological safety of each of my teams had plummeted. Multiple members of the engineering team, who expressed alarm and surprise by the termination of a peer who was “crushing it”, asked for a copy of a generic performance improvement plan template which adhered to Rune Policy to better understand the standards they were meant to meet and evaluate if their employment was in danger. I asked Ram for one directly, who declined on the basis that there wasn’t one and had never been. An informal document had been drafted for the purposes of Person B, drawn from no template in particular, and the creation of a formal template was not in the roadmap. This was espoused as a good thing, actually, for reasons of flexibility. I returned to the team empty-handed.
So, on August 5th, I raised a second discrimination complaint with my supervisor Ram and with HR, that Person B’s sudden termination violated Rune Lab’s performance improvement policy, which requires a written plan and concrete milestones. Neither of which had been provided in a formalized way to Person B.
Now, this story is much shorter.
I expressed concerns that Person B was being treated differently due to his identity, and those concerns were dismissed without investigation.
My documentation on Rune’s prior written policy and evidence of Person B’s performance improvement was, to the best of my knowledge, discarded without consideration. I was told by Ram that Person B’s termination was “none of my business”, and was warned to stop looking into it for “privacy reasons”. A public announcement requesting that employees stop asking about it was posted in Slack along with a terse statement of Person B’s departure. I understood this to mean that my continued employment would be threatened by pushing the issue.
So, I suspended further investigation in order to keep my job.
I’m not proud of that.
It’s important to note that during this time, I also surfaced feedback that had been shared with me by my own engineering teams regarding ways in which Rune Lab’s technology was insufficient for clinical use. Normally, my NDA would prohibit me from disclosing this, but as I will demonstrate in this article, it is a contributing factor to the retaliatory actions taken against me and thus covered under Washington State labor protection laws.
In one case, multiple engineers alerted me that they were concerned they could not verify the accuracy of the data they were displaying and had low confidence in its integrity, but did not have time to do additional research to hit internal deadlines. On another occasion, an engineer asked me for help parsing unclear requirements for feature work I had purposely been excluded from; upon meeting with our research team, the entire feature was deemed “not clinically viable” and had to be scrapped. A third example: I surfaced sustained feedback from a front-end team that development was becoming untenably difficult due to “technical debt and spaghetti code”, that the app’s overall quality was being severely affected, and that the rush to ship was resulting in a sharp increase of alerts and bug reports.
Finally, and this was my own observation; I considered it unconscionable that formal requirements were not kept to reflect the most recent build of our tools. Monolithic design documents were only sporadically updated by owners after changes to an app, and engineers admitted that the documentation was too onerous to bother reading. This not only made triaging bugs difficult, but complicated interactions with governmental bodies such as the FDA. 5
In each instance, I escalated this feedback to the appropriate members of the senior leadership team, and where appropriate, proposed refactors of common pain points. Synthesizing, evaluating, and sharing this feedback is a crucial component of any TPM’s day-to-day responsibilities. Yet many of my peers expressed fear of raising this feedback themselves, and were grateful that I was willing to do so for them.
And in each instance, my reports were downplayed, disregarded outright, or resulted in my removal from a project. I observed that feedback about the platform’s accuracy, quality, documentation, or adherence to written SOP’s consistently generated threat from senior leadership. It occurred regardless of the method of delivery, and was more often than not accompanied by verbal hostility and periods of isolation. This was particularly alarming given that our tools were used in a healthcare setting, and could potentially affect the safety of patients if our apps did not behave as anticipated.
The icy tone of my 1:1’s and meetings with senior leadership persisted, and with each report I found that I was further distanced from meaningful work.
In August 2022, I raised concerns with HR via Slack and Zoom that I was being retaliated against for my feedback, and that Rune Labs intended to replace me with a new candidate; specifically a connection of Ram’s from a previous company. Documentation was provided via Slack which demonstrated how elements of my job were being stripped from me, and I was being actively prevented from making necessary organizational changes or participating in basic elements of ongoing development for my role.
Senior leadership denied that any change was incoming. I was told that I was overreacting.
Then, on the twenty-fourth of August, I was suddenly demoted.
Under scrutiny, Ram would later deny that the action was technically called a demotion, but it certainly qualified as adverse action: despite unofficially performing in the role already, I was formally disqualified from future consideration as a director for my discipline. My authority to influence and manage the TPM discipline at Rune Labs was fully absorbed by Ram, although many of my responsibilities remained with a diminished capacity to achieve them. Meetings where my input would normally be sought were hidden from my calendar. I was fully removed from multiple teams, with my responsibilities given to Ram’s new hand-selected hire, who would also report to him instead of becoming a member of my own team. The projects I was left with were notorious in the organization for being the least-loved; they received the fewest resources, direction, and attention from senior leadership. The rest were given to his candidate.
Ram would later privately admit in a 1:1 that another motivating factor for the restructure was that his hand-picked candidate had initially decided not to move forward with an offer if I was their direct supervisor. No specific feedback was recorded or given.
Meanwhile, I had received only spectacular feedback in my most recent performance reviews. In fact, I had just been promoted. I was certainly not on any performance improvement plan. With my ability to make contributions to the organization drastically downsized, I raised concerns to HR that my file was being papered for future termination, and offered Rune Labs my resignation while the market was still favorable.
During the month of September, I was repeatedly reassured by senior leadership of my “critical value” to the company, and was specifically requested not to seek other employment or consider leaving Rune. I was asked to please give the restructure a chance, and given the assurance that by Natalie Cleaver, the Head of Human Resources that my termination was not being considered. They would personally see to it that my future performance evaluations were performed fairly.
Natalie was terminated shortly after.
Remember this detail.
It will become important later.
In September, I notified Rune Labs of a need for disability accommodation for an upcoming in-person workshop, due to my immunocompromised status and the ongoing pandemic. I requested to attend the summit remotely.
My request was denied.
I appealed this decision, citing my heightened risk for serious complications in the event of COVID-19 infection. My appeal was denied by Ram, and I was told it was vital that I personally attend.
Privately, however, other employees were permitted to attend remotely. I learned about this just prior to the summit, when a peer who learned about my appeal confided in me that they had received this permission without contest and thought it strange.
Despite Rune Lab’s policy for on-site gatherings, previously set by Natalie Cleaver and documented in Slack, that all attendees must be recently vaccinated and masked, no such check was made or enforced for the on-site.
I attended at my own peril, out of fear that I might lose my job.
By this point, my 1:1’s with my supervisor had become so overwhelmingly negative and uncomfortable to me that I cancelled them entirely.
Due to the trust and connections I had previously built as a member of the leadership team, I had access to inside information from multiple, credible sources at this time that Rune Labs was preparing to lay off a considerable portion of the company. I was warned that I in particular could expect to be terminated within 30 days, due to the amount of trouble I had made, and my source was able to substantiate this. Further, I had been tipped off that these layoffs were likely to disproportionately target other members of historically marginalized groups. My sources expressed intense discomfort with these plans but were powerless to prevent them.
Incidentally, I had recently formed Rune Lab’s first employee resource group, for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and had received interest from my peers in establishing a second for women in the workplace. I had already received feedback through the Pride ERG that members of this community felt disproportionately sidelined at work. As such, I felt it was my uniquely my responsibility to act, and protect my peers. I reached out to another manager that I trusted, with the intent to organize as laborers and warn the most vulnerable members of our team to line up other work in anticipation of the coming layoff.
We took a walk, and I shared my experience with them in full; that I felt I was being retaliated against for giving anti-discrimination feedback to senior leadership, that I felt like I was being treated differently because of my identity as a transgender woman, specific instances of abuse that were drastically impacting both my ability to do my job and my mental health outside of work, and the pending danger to our peers. The whole deal. I thought I was pouring my soul out to a proven ally.
They told me flatly that I was wrong, they did not believe a layoff was coming, that I was overreacting, and that while they conceded that they way I had been treated was inappropriate and unprofessional, that if I couldn’t just get over it then maybe I should just leave. Essentially, “maybe you’re the problem”. 6
I didn’t want to burn my sources, wasn’t expecting such a negative response, and if you’ll permit me to be cringe for a moment, felt deeply hurt in that moment, so I did not reveal that I had access to proof of the pending layoff.
I thought about giving up, but it was clear my termination was imminent. There was no point in trying to save my own skin. So when I was done crying about it, I dusted myself off and personally contacted a handful of the engineers that had been indicated to me as the most at-risk, warned them of the layoff, and a few of us even explored unionizing.
On October 13th, at a company all-hands, a presentation was given which alluded to senior leadership’s desire to “restructure” the company. I recognized the format from previous companies which were laying soft expectations for layoffs, and asked directly about it during the AMA section.
I was explicitly promised, first publicly in an All-Hands by COO Swati Reichmuth and then privately by Ram, that a layoff was not being considered. At this point I was aware of written documentation which would prove that they were lying, but could not reveal this without triggering an investigation into the identity of my sources.
Later on 10/13, I was promised by Ram that if Rune Lab’s need for a layoff was to change, that I would not be chosen for it anyway due to my exemplary performance and the importance of my past and future contributions. This was a lie.
I informed Rune Labs of the unique financial harm which would be inflicted upon me as a result of my marginalized identity if adequate warning was not provided for future layoffs, as even under the best of conditions it takes me several times longer than the average candidate to find work as a trans woman in tech. I was assured that Rune Labs had sufficient runway well into the future, that there was no financial need for a layoff anyway, and that I would be communicated with directly and well in advance if the stability of my role was impacted.
I was again explicitly asked to remain at Rune Labs and not to resign.
I was included in the layoff despite previous guarantees this would not occur. In fact, I learned about my termination via a peer who physically called me on the phone early in the morning after hearing the announcement. I was on protected disability leave at the time, and only received official notification later via email. The email directly contradicted Ram’s assertion that our runway was fine and that there was absolutely no financial need for its reduction.
So I guess now I can check “laid off via email” off of my bucket list.
As predicted, the layoff disproportionality targeted members of protected classes, with surgical precision. Approximately 20% of the company was laid off, and to the best of my knowledge 100% of them were members of historically marginalized groups. Women, people of color, queer folks, and multiple people on disability and even maternity leave were specifically and disproportionately targeted. In the aftermath I could not find even one single person who did not belong to a protected class.
I was also chosen over other candidates in the same role, despite my seniority and contributions. Documentation from Rune Labs, including my own termination email, again confirms that my performance was exemplary and was not a factor in my dismissal.
Based on all of the information available to me, I have reason to believe that my termination was directly motivated by providing critical anti-discrimination feedback to Rune Labs’ senior leadership, in violation of US labor laws.
I’m still good friends with many of my former colleagues, so what follows are a few fun tidbits that I have learned from credible, anonymous sources since my termination, which I include to illustrate how work conditions at Rune Labs continue to deteriorate for members of my community.
Shortly after the layoff, multiple surviving members of the engineering team observed during a company AMA that the composition of the layoffs seemed to disproportionately target members of marginalized groups. The response, which I am told was widely perceived by my peers as quite angry and hostile, was that no such discrimination had occurred at Rune Labs, that it was “offensive to even propose”, and that while it’s “in vogue nowadays” to cry discrimination, that it was nonsense and should not be brought up again. This admonishment had a chilling effect on the remaining engineers. I know of at least two employees who resigned afterward in protest.
Then, within thirty days of my termination, the last remaining transgender employee at the company was also terminated. They had filed their own discrimination claim internally, that they had been repeatedly misgendered and given both unclear directions and unrealistic expectations for their current project after raising critical feedback about senior leadership and DEI. They even managed to complete the terms of what was, in my opinion, an absurdly aggressive PIP, and were still let go.
So, Rune Labs just happened to systematically fire every single one of their out trans employees within a month of each other. Totally coincidental.
Oh, did I not mention? The head of human resources, who was terminated around the same time as I was? They were also trans, and also have a well-known history of struggling to navigate Rune Labs as a result of their identity. (Just to make this perfectly explicit, Natalie is publicly out and I have their explicit consent to identify them as such in this article. Always ask!)
Among many, many other documented micro and macro aggressions, they were given the feedback that their termination was in part because they were generally “too disagreeable” with CEO Brian Pepin on issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and human rights.
Later, in response to the threat of legal discovery and multiple lawsuits from those terminated, Rune Labs also announced in an all-hands that a new data retention policy would be implemented, and for unfathomable reasons made explicit that this was to frustrate future legal discovery and limit company liability in the event of policy breaches. Which is a brilliant thing to admit on camera. I hear judges really love being fucked with. Worked great for Alex Jones.
Within an hour of wrongfully terminating one of my queer peers, a listing for their role was posted in an LGBTQIA+ recruiting community, after senior leadership specifically requested that those communities be targeted for recruiting purposes. As I understand it, that community has since banned Rune Labs from posting jobs there.
I’ve also observed that Rune Labs, perhaps wisely, stopped listing any members of their engineering team on the company’s About Us page. If I had to hypothesize, I’d guess that this is due to the fact that they have lost almost the entirety of the original engineering team from my time there. It would probably save quite a bit of paperwork, not having to update the site all the time, and would help obfuscate their accelerated turnover from future investors.
Hypothetically, I mean.
I’m not in the habit of routinely discriminating against my employees, so I can only imagine what that must be like.
What you’ve read today isn’t even an exhaustive account of the behaviors I witnessed at Rune Labs which I believe constitute illegal workplace discrimination and retaliation. But lawyers charge on the hour, you know? So let’s wrap this up.
These are the facts:
I remained at Rune Labs due to information which Rune Labs knew at that time was false. I was subjected to a hostile workplace due to my identity and protected whistleblowing activity for many months, which continued to severely impact my physical and mental health, eventually resulting in my own homelessness. And I provided Rune Labs with warning that unique harm would occur to me if the stability of my role was misrepresented.
Further, while this article is focused upon the specific harm of my wrongful termination, Rune Labs has a demonstrable history of adverse disciplinary actions against women and gender nonconforming employees. These behaviors plainly establish a pattern of willful discrimination spanning the entirety of my employment, and are well-documented.
I believe this would be trivial to demonstrate in litigation and that further evidence would be uncovered in a discovery process, and clearly they agree with me since they’ve announced their intention to destroy it to the entire company,
like big stupid boneheads. 7
I am taking substantial personal and legal risk to deliver this warning to you.
Rune is an actively dangerous work environment, with a very real and proven risk of physical and mental harm for minorities. Its executive team has a demonstrated pattern of illegal, unprofessional and predatory behavior and there is, as of writing, no safeguard or structures of accountability for any of them as their head of HR has also been, I sincerely believe, wrongfully terminated.
As Rune Labs prepares to raise a series B investment round, it is likely that they will begin actively recruiting again shortly. I believe it would be gravely unethical of me to remain silent, and given the support of Washington’s surprisingly labor-friendly whistleblower protection laws, I am willing to incur the risk inherent to making my experience public in order to protect my community. I am aware that things rarely end well for whistleblowers, and I have buckled my seatbelt appropriately. 8
So, I would like to use this opportunity to urge in the strongest of terms that members of historically marginalized groups who are approached by Rune Labs seek employment elsewhere for their own safety.
Thank you for your kind attention.
When you read this, I want you to imagine me saying it while maintaining direct and unblinking eye contact with your lawyer. ↩
And if in so doing, I sound a little more robotic than usual, sorry, it is at the recommendation of legal counsel. ↩
That’s “software development life cycle”, in the biz. Basically: the process of turning an idea for a cool feature into a piece of software within a given timeframe and budget. ↩
Although, it took some time and considerable effort to convince the CEO Brian Pepin to finally agree to part ways with him. Boy’s clubs, what can you do? 🤷♀️🤷 ↩
My concern was not hypothetical; we encountered this exact problem in the summer of 2021, when the FDA requested requirements and test cases for our Tremor Transducer that literally did not exist and had to be reverse-engineered within just a few, extremely stressful days. I maintain that in my time at Rune Labs, I honestly represented the state of our products in all communications to the FDA to the best of my ability, but this project was eventually taken from me, too, so I actually have no idea what claims we made in the final report. Even after, senior leadership remained adamant that there was no need for detailed requirements beyond what was submitted to the FDA, and I was actively prevented from working on them myself. ↩
If you happen to be reading this, it’s okay. We’re cool. We both had a lot going on. ↩
Hold on my lawyer has handed me a note, apparently I’m not allowed to say this ↩
like and subscribe i guess lol ↩