Thinx founder Miki Agrawal has been in the spotlight recently for a slew of negative public relations disasters. Agrawal created Thinx, a company that makes period underwear and promotes itself as a feminist brand, breaking past the taboo that often comes with speaking about menstruation. MarketWatch interviewed Thinx customers to discover why they were drawn to New York City-based Thinx: “its innovative product, which they said was easier, more comfortable, environmentally-friendly and even more cost-effective than traditional pads and tampons.” It was seen as a forward-thinking company run by a strong woman CEO. However, the image of Thinx soured as reports of a poor office environment and allegations about sexual harassment emerged.
An interesting note from MarketWatch is that “some said that because of the good work Thinx was doing, critics were reluctant to speak their grievances.” Its brash and outspoken campaigns couldn’t save it forever, however, as cases of sexual harassment in the office surfaced. While Agrawal has stated that she enjoys talking about “taboo subjects,” NYMAG reported that a former employee—Chelsea Leibow, the former head of public relations—filed a complaint that such topics inappropriately entered the workplace. According to Leibow, topics included “the size and shape of her employees’ breasts, an employee’s nipple piercings, her own sexual exploits, her desire to experiment with polyamory, her interest in entering a sexual relationship with one of her employees, and the exact means by which she was brought to female ejaculation.” The unsuitable behavior was apparently also physical. Agrawal “touched an employee’s breasts and asked her to expose them, routinely changed clothes in front of employees, and conducted meetings via videoconference while in bed, apparently unclothed.” There are reports that women who worked there had substandard benefits and felt exploited by low pay.
None of this is exactly image boosting, especially for a company branding itself as a feminist leader. In wake of these allegations, Agrawal did step down as “SHE-eo.” She wrote a blog post regarding her decision. In it, she says she believes she did the best she could as a start-up, stating, “Yes, I have made a TON of mistakes along the way but I can proudly say that our company has grown from an idea in my head to an innovation that is worn by millions of satisfied women globally in a few short years.”
She did admit to one crucial mistake: not hiring HR personal. “It was hard to rationalize hiring an HR person at the time with only 15 employees and then all of a sudden we were 30 people,” she says. With everything moving and growing as fast as it did, HR was on the bottom of the things-to-do list. That is, until maternity leave, benefits, and health insurance became issues. It was with this that she claims she realized being a CEO was not what she wanted to do, and so she stepped down. After allegations arose, she added an update to the post: “To be crystal clear, I know I’m passionate and oft unruly in my ways (as a taboo breaker must be), but I have never, ever crossed the line in the inflammatory ways described. This is all I am going to say on this matter.”
This ordeal, as well as everything going on with Uber, has brought up some questions about brash start-ups. Quartz highlighted two major points one can learn from the situation. The first was “Your office is not a tent in the desert,” meaning that one has to be careful about taking a playful work environment too far, and HR personnel are certainly a necessity. The second said, “The hype is no longer enough,” detailing that the “slippery slope of a ‘casual’ startup culture is finally being scrutinized in ways it hasn’t before due to a shifting of the scales in the employer-employee relationship.” Maintaining clear boundaries is in fact incredibly important. Fortune echoes similar lessons. It also stresses the importance of HR in order to not have PR issues boiling over. It recommends not to ignore culture: “Company culture is the foundation for everything you do now and in the future: how you build your product, win customers, make business decisions, and treat people. HR doesn’t dictate culture, but it does help maintain its integrity.”
A start-up can’t afford to make things up as it goes along. Doing so can lead to huge PR problems in the future, with employees feeling consumed by the workplace or unfairly pressured by the boss. Workers can be a company’s best asset when conditions are right. This also shows how HR and PR are closely related. A good HR system will help catch or even prevent future PR hassles. It’s okay to be friendly with your workers…just not too friendly.