When your “favorite thing” to do is to talk “about things you’re not supposed to talk about,” things that are still, sadly, seen as taboo in our society today, you better make sure, that as a leader of a company, breaking boundaries doesn’t mean you have zero boundaries.
If there’s one thing we can learn from the lawsuit Chelsea Leibow filed against Thinx earlier this month, it is this: whether your company has a slimmed-down management structure or a more traditional-by-the-book, siloed hierarchy, offices desperately need rulebooks and handbooks.
Leibow, who was the former head of public relations at the company, alleged that Miki Agrawal, the queen of feminine hygiene herself, didn’t have boundaries. The period underwear company’s unregulated culture meant Agrawal, according to Leibow’s complaint, shared explicit details about her sex life – including an experience in an “Orgy Dome” at Burning Man – conducted FaceTime meetings while using the toilet and touched Leibow’s breasts without her permission. If Liebow is to be believed, Agrawal is apparently the Sage Kelly of the female hygiene industry.
Let me just say that I don’t know Agrawal, I don’t know Leibow, and I’ve never worked at Thinx. What I do know is that as companies become more fluid and casual, leaders should make sure they’re within work appropriate boundaries even while they’re busting taboos and social boundaries. In its purest form, casual workplaces promote a free thinking, transparent culture that questions the status quo and rebukes long-existing systems of patriarchal oppression. The ugly side, however, is that it’s like a petri dish for inappropriate behavior. When a poll from 2015 asked women if they’ve ever been sexually harassed in the office, 16 percent who said “no” changed their answer to “yes” when they were asked in a different way: whether they had ever experienced “sexually explicit or sexist remarks” of any kind at work.
Because at least the sexual harassment of the Mad Men-era, you know like soliciting sex in exchange for a promotion, was easy to identify. Today, that lewd text message flashing on your phone in the middle of the night might be confused for an overbearing, aggressive boss. Suffice it to say that even though we’ve moved beyond those heady days of strippers plying their trade on actual trading floors after every friday closing bell, the gray area has actually widened precisely because our culture has shifted.
Taking THINX as an instance, companies with more casual cultures tend to naively think that not having any boundaries will keep employees safe and happy. Agrawal herself admits to this major misstep in her post on Medium, saying she didn’t “take time to think through” HR practices because the company is still small and she was “on the road speaking, doing press, brand partnerships, editing all of the creative and shouting from the rooftops about THINX so [the company could] keep going.” But what’s important to remember is that the work/purpose/play trifecta is a hard one to pull off. Just take a look at what’s happening at Uber.
So what do you do if you’re leading a culture that promotes talking about “vibrators and vaginas and vaginal steam baths, all these kinds of things all the time”? How can we talk about periods and sex and masturbation at work without sexually harassing people? To start, we need to have open conversations about how to discuss these traditionally taboo topics so that everyone is on the same page. The new rules of the millennial workplace say yes, relationships in the office are a lot more casual, but you still better make sure everyone understands that just because you have frank conversations about bodies and sex at work does not mean that you’re all friends now.
You better make sure everything is laid out clearly in the employee handbook. You better make sure everyone understands that you’re running a business, not running around a festival in the middle of a desert.
Vivian Giang is a business writer on workplace trends, women-focused industries, technology and the human brain...and whatever else she finds interesting about work and play.
You can find her on twitter @vivian_giang