Chelsea Leibow, former head of public relations at THINX, the company made famous for creating and selling “period underwear,” filed a complaint with the New York City Commission on Human Rights against the company’s co-founder and former CEO Mikki Agrawal. The complaint alleges that Agrawal subjected Leibow to a pattern of sexual harassment in addition to creating and fostering a culture of fear, dominance and ageism. The complaint also names the CFO and COO of THINX for their failure to address repeated complaints about the CEO’s behavior.
This matter is somewhat unique due to the “culture” at THINX. Considered a very progressive company, its mission statement, which is what attracts many of its employees to the company, is to “destigmatize menstruation.” The work environment was one that encouraged the all-female staff to speak freely about bodily functions and feminism. However, according to Leibow, there were absolutely no boundaries. The inappropriate comments, nudity and touching created a very uncomfortable and, at times, humiliating situation for her.
She raised her concerns with the company “Culture Queens” who, according to New York Magazine, Agrawal chose from her staff to handle employee complaints and who represented the closest thing to a Human Resources department. Leibow allegedly spoke with them several times, the last time being about a week before she was fired for poor performance; an evaluation she says was unjustified. In fact, Leibow claims that after her termination, the COO was crying when she escorted her out of the building “telling her she had been wonderful at her job.”
Sexual harassment includes conduct that creates a hostile work environment. It involves unwanted touching, sexual comments, jokes, innuendo and other actions that would make a reasonable person feel uncomfortable. As is allegedly the case here, sexual harassment may occur between individuals of the same gender.
According to Leibow’s complaint, Agrawal
Employers at times invoke the defense that the alleged conduct was not sexual harassment because the supposed victim was complicit. In other words, the employee participated in the conduct, and it was not unwelcome. Leibow, however, claims that the culture of fear and intimidation created by the former CEO required employees to appear complicit lest they suffer serious professional and personal retaliation. “I can recall multiple occasions when I tried to be honest about salaries or employment policies,” Leibow said, where Agrawal “would stew, treat you like s***, then pick a moment to blow up and tell you how ungrateful you are and how you should be thanking her for the opportunity, how dare you.” The New York Magazine piece states that employees on the creative and design teams, in particular, frequently had their jobs threatened for opposing Agrawal and others she would threaten to fire before their bonuses kicked in. She would also tell workers that if they quit their jobs, she would never recommend them to future employers.
If the lines at THINX at times seemed blurry, it might be due to the nature of the business and its mission. These factors alone necessitated certain conversations that may have been inappropriate at other companies. Discussing menstruation, female body types, and the stigmatization of women was certainly part of creating and promoting THINX products. Leibow, however, makes it clear in her allegations that Agrawal’s behavior went far beyond what was appropriate. “I think it’s important to say that, of course, I was comfortable talking about bodily functions and feminism as it related to the company. However, there should be boundaries in every working environment.”
THINX is a unique company, but many of the issues brought up in Leibow’s complaint are at the heart of all sexual harassment cases. What was the alleged conduct? Was it unwanted? Would it make a reasonable person feel uncomfortable or threatened? We will see how the company culture of THINX plays into the outcome of the matter. A culture of sexual harassment certainly does not make it legal.
Leeds Brown Law, P.C., sexual harassment attorneys representing employees throughout New York City and the surrounding counties, can help you file a claim against your employer. Contact us 24/7 1-800-585-4658 and set up a free case evaluation.