The Thinx controversy and why solid HR is essential in today’s workplaces
Harassment and discrimination complaints are nothing to take lightly. They can be expensive, disruptive and damaging to your company in so many ways. Don’t believe us? Just ask Uber. Or Jared and Kay Jewelers. Or any of these tech businesses.
Way too many businesses—even millennial-focused, hipster booming startups—are ill prepared to deal with harassment and discrimination complaints when they surface or get filed. And when these complaints do come up, they can make a huge public splash that can seriously damage your brand, before any legal action even begins.
Take for example, the recent accusations against Thinx, an innovative brand of women’s underwear, bodysuits and other products designed for menstruation. Troubling allegations from former and current employees surfaced in a Racked.com article that included, among other things, sexual harassment, a pervasive culture of fear and intimidation, sub-par maternity leave policies and employment practices that don’t measure up to the feminist messaging the brand has forged to create a tens of millions in revenue. The allegations are truly cringe-worthy:
Most of the complaints center on [co-founder and former CEO Miki] Agrawal personally — her “erratic” and “abusive” behavior, her habit of belittling employees due to their age, her public grandstanding on the backs of underpaid staff — and she has responded in kind, first in Instagram comments and then in a blog post published on Medium. The most recent news, however — that Thinx’s former head of public relations, Chelsea Leibow, last week filed a sexual harassment complaint against Agrawal with the City of New York Commission on Human Rights alleging that the former CEO touched her breasts without consent, spoke openly and in lurid detail at the office about her sex life, and changed clothes in front of employees, among many other claims detailed in an extensive story on The Cut — spotlights just how personal the problems at Thinx have become for some, and will be a test of how the vocally feminist brand handles such serious allegations of harmful and un-feminist behavior.
Everyone done slapping his or her heads yet? Sheesh! If the allegations are true, we have to ask: what was this company thinking?
The problem, is that they probably weren’t thinking, especially about the importance of a solid human resources program, one that goes beyond filing required employment paperwork and issuing handbooks to new hires. Thinx grew incredibly fast, but its HR department and programs did not. Fast Company summed it up nicely in their article on the Thinx debacle:
Agrawal attributes the majority of her missteps—particularly when it came to handling HR issues—to Thinx’s dizzying growth and the fact that she spent so much time doing press for the brand.
That may be true: Racked‘s story, which says Thinx has lost 10 employees since January, has echoes of accounts from Rent the Runway employees in 2015, when the e-commerce startup was facing its own growing pains. We’ve heard stories of internal strife from countless other fast-growing startups, from Nasty Gal to Blue Apron and Zenefits. These stories have even surfaced at established companies like Amazon.
Management, Prepare Yourself!
Preventing harassment and discrimination complaints is an ongoing process that should be re-evaluated periodically to make sure your efforts are effective. Before an incident occurs, provide training to your management teams about what constitutes harassment and discrimination and how to react to complaints. This is something every business should do. And of course, compiling and reviewing all related documents (including social media posts, emails, and text messages), preventing retaliation and taking steps to reasonably keep the accuser and accused from interacting on the job if a complaint is filed are also important steps to take.
“It is important for managers and executives to realize that how they react to a harassment or discrimination claim, whether they think it is merited or not, becomes part of the issue itself,” says Tina Hamilton, PHR, president of myHR Partner. “As soon as an incident or situation is brought to your attention, you are on record yourself. That’s why it is critical to know how to respond to such scenarios properly.”
That includes staying above the fray and using language that cannot be construed as belittling or joking while you are investigating the incident. It also means using proper discretion at all times.
Make Sure Your Managers Are Well Trained!
myHR Partner has a wide range of training offerings that will help you educate your managers so that they can play a pivotal role in protecting your organization and its brand. Beyond good for business, some states, like California, require annual or periodic harassment training as well.
Whether you are looking for workshops on harassment and documentation, or some other HR need, our team is ready to assist you. Click here for more on our dynamic and customizable training programs.