No one goes to business school to run an HR department. On the US version of The Office, Toby, the killjoy HR manager, was a running joke.
But every now and then, a story emerges about management behavior so atrocious that it should make corporate employees everywhere really very grateful there’s a human-resources department. Such as what allegedly happened at Thinx, a three-year-old startup that makes underwear for menstruating women, with its former CEO, Miki Agrawal.
As painfully detailed in Jezebel and New York magazine, Agrawal encouraged a rambunctious, sexually explicit work environment where boundaries were not only crossed, but obliterated. According to a complaint filed by one former employee with New York City’s human rights commission, Agrawal frequently commented on a female employee’s breasts, touched them, and asked to see them. Agrawal, who dubbed herself the “she-EO,” also allegedly undressed in front of employees and attended video conferences while in bed, apparently undressed. And then, according to New York, there’s this:
At another meeting, after a weekend retreat where she took a workshop on “squirting,” Agrawal reported back on her experience, in great detail, to several employees. According to Leibow, the CEO expressed the desire to have the man who’d brought her to the point of ejaculation that weekend teach Agrawal’s fiancé what to do to achieve the same result; she illustrated what she’d learned with hand motions.
Agrawal’s behavior may be why 10 of Thinx’s 30 or so employees left the company since January. But it could also be because of the low pay and poor benefits, such as offering just two weeks of paid maternity leave, which seems contrary to stated its mission of empowering women.
So where was HR in all of this? Oh yeah: Agrawal hadn’t bothered hiring an HR director. As she explained in a post on Medium, she was too busy and the company was growing too quickly. “I didn’t put HR practices in place because I was on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative, and shouting from the rooftops about Thinx so we can keep going.”
The company is searching for a new CEO and HR director, according to a statement emailed to Quartz. “We take matters related to our company culture very seriously, and we are taking action to make meaningful improvements.” The accusations detailed in the human-rights complaint “have no legal merit,” according to the statement.
Agrawal, while acknowledging she’s not cut out for management, defends her decisions and management missteps as part of evolution of a startup. And unfortunately, it’s not hard to find other founder-run companies where allegations of sexual harassment have festered.
But respecting your people isn’t just for established companies; it’s a necessity for any business, and arguably, it’s even more critical at a startup, where employees are asked to sacrifice much. To set boundaries and insist on appropriate standards of behavior and pay, Thinx didn’t need an HR department or even a HR manager—it needed a founder who knew enough to care.