Yes, even in 2017, boundaries are a thing.
But it feels like it’s becoming a business trend to “break down barriers” to create an idealized, thin membrane between personal and professional, between boss and friend, and edgy and inappropriate.
The founder of Thinx, Miki Agrawal, is under fire for blurring boundaries in a big way. The former CEO of the Brooklyn-based “period-proof underwear” business is facing allegations of sexual harassment, sexism, and general actions not befitting a CEO. Former employees, having once believed the startup to be “feminist” and “intersectional,” now relay how Agrawal seemed to be in various states of undress in the office, groped an employees’s breasts, and video chatted while on the toilet.
As bizarre as these allegations might seem, Agrawal’s actions seem to be in line with the modern business strategy the tech and startup culture has adopted: incorporating virtues such as openness and “radical authenticity” to build a brand that can transmute between the personal and professional life of employees and clients. But, as evidenced with Agrawal’s allegations, this is CEO-as-friend and company-as-home strategy is imploding in on itself.
Agrawal is among the first founders to undergo the public scrutiny of an ideology collapsing in on itself. She should have done 2 things differently to ensure authenticity made business sense.
1. Hired an internal human resources specialist
Agrawal admits she should have called in a human resources professional earlier on to secure paid-leave, receive feedback about her behavior, and iron out other employee benefits. An HR professional may appear like an superfluous cost, especially for smaller companies. However it’s investing money into creating smooth, internal operations which reaps major financial benefits down the road. If Thinx had an HR specialist, conflict would have been resolved within the company’s walls, rather than it escalating into the public realm.
Recruiting is a tough game in 2017. As Millennials made up the majority of the American workforce starting in 2015, they make different career decisions and view the role of human resources differently. If the big companies—with major resources to upend how they work with their employees—are slow to change, young companies face a challenge in dealing with their workforce with smaller budgets. It would be understandable that a founder, like Agrawal, would push this to the bottom of the priority list.
2. Keep investors in mind
As a founder, Agrawal was the go-to person for investor relations. Whether that was securing a private round or working on an acquisition on a 5 year timeline, Agrawal’s overall behaviour would have been more conservative if she knew investors would definitely hear about her actions (in startup land, they certainly would). Of course, this is a bit difficult given Agrawal and the tech world are drinking the same Kool-Aid of blurred boundaries, but if behaviour was brought up in a boardroom of potential investors, that would have made clear where Agrawal should have drawn the line.