In the latest HR headline from the start-up world, the offending executive doesn’t fit the typical mold, but the lesson remains the same: don’t ignore human resources.
Miki Agrawal, the self-proclaimed “SHE-eo” of THINX, and her “boundary pushing” workplace demeanor are the focus of a New York City Commission on Human Rights complaint by the former head of public relations, Chelsea Leibow. Leibow alleges that Agrawal created a hostile work environment through her constant discussion of sex, nudity around employees, and inappropriate touching of employees’ breasts.
THINX, the “period underwear” company that seeks to disrupt the menstrual products world, intentionally pushes boundaries with its marketing strategies. In her role, Leibow was responsible for PR emails, which were the subject of media attention highlighting the emails’ casual, “millennial-speak.” According to Leibow in an interview with New York Magazine, the company also pushed internal boundaries of professionalism. Leibow alleges that, just a few months after she joined THINX Agrawal, “helped herself” to Leibow’s breasts and engaged in a variety of other sexualized conduct. Leibow asserts that Agrawal drove a casual culture, and that many employees engaged in more casual (and often sexually-inappropriate) conversations out of fear of losing their jobs.
Leibow alleges that she made multiple internal complaints, including to the CFO and CCO, about Agrawal’s behavior, but those complaints were ignored. Rather than establish a formal HR function, Agrawal introduced “Culture Queens” to manage internal disputes. Neither of these individuals had HR experience, and the reporting line brought all complaints back to Agrawal – even those complaints about her. In fact, Leibow alleged that it was ingrained into the culture that the employees and the executive team “operated on different planes.”
In response to Leibow’s complaint and subsequent publicity, Agrawal published a blog acknowledging that THINX failed to appropriately establish a human resources function early enough in the formation of the company. Like many start-ups, when THINX had only 15 employees, Agrawal did not make hiring an HR professional a priority. She acknowledges that the failure to address human resources was a “problem area,” but “to sit down and get an HR person and think about [health insurance, vacation days, benefits, and maternity leave] were left to the bottom of the pile of things to get done.” THINX has commissioned an employment law firm to investigate these claims, along with several other allegations being anonymously reported to various news outlets.
Following the complaint, Agrawal has stepped down as CEO, and THINX is hiring a new CEO and a HR manager. Our attorneys have seen a continuing pattern of successful start-up companies ignoring human resources functions in favor other responsibilities to launch the business. But as this example teaches, start-ups and other small businesses should not leave HR-planning to the end. Although managing the HR function early on seems less important than getting the business off the ground, failing to establish basic workplace rules, including a harassment complaint procedure, can lead to major problems.