Categories: HR & Employment Law | by admin

Young people in jeans with baseball caps adorning their heads fly up and down the hallways, hoodies hang from the coat racks by the door and booze-filled parties on Friday afternoons. It describes countless companies in America today, but is there a dark side to this culture? 

Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Bryers, Tinder, Zillow – what do these three tech companies have in common? Sexual harassment lawsuits. And what may be behind the actions that prompted litigation is the increasingly popular relaxed company culture derived from startups. When you can wear whatever you want to the office, when you joke around and play games with your coworkers as much you type up reports and when your work days bleed into evenings and weekends, it can be difficult to determine what constitutes sexual harassment and what doesn't. And ultimately, it can blur the lines of professionalism in general – both in and outside of the workplace.

Is this an office or a frat house?
Just because a company is relaxed, doesn't mean it's unprofessional. It also doesn't mean it is alright to say or do certain things that could be considered sexual harassment, but that's exactly what's happening in the worst case scenarios. And even when things don't get that bad, a relaxed office environment without the right controls or managers could become ineffective.

For smaller organizations, guidelines may seem completely foreign, which opens the door to a wild west atmosphere.

It's typical of larger companies to have established written policies on everything from dress to sexual harassment, however, those policies are not always effectively enforced or followed. In the case of smaller organizations, such guidelines could seem completely foreign and unnecessary. Even so, issues have come up at a number of companies that have touted their relaxed office environments. These offices serve as examples of how a lax company culture can go wrong and go too far when professionalism isn't a focus.

Recently, Whitney Wolfe, who was once considered a co-founder of Tinder, filed a lawsuit that led to the resignation of Tinder executive Justin Mateen, due to alleged sexual harassment. She said that the startup company had a "frat-like" atmosphere. We can't confirm whether or not Frank the Tank made an appearance to streak through the quad – a sexual harassment disaster in its own right. What is probable, is that the Tinder incident is similar to what goes on at most companies: adequate professionalism has been replaced by plenty of commonplace college dorm room behavior.

Another tech company has recently been described as having a company culture akin to an "adult frat house." Rachel Kremer, a former employee of Zillow, filed a lawsuit against the company late last year after claiming that the male employees at the organization ranked her according to breast size, sent inappropriate pictures to her and demanded sexual gratification in exchange for her continued employment.

What people wear to the office could determine how they approach their work.What people wear to the office could determine how they approach their work.

Is your Metallica t-shirt playing mind games?

Research shows that what you wear influences how you think – people in doctors' scrubs are more focused, those in suits feel more professional and you can expect someone decked out in workout gear to feel pretty fit. Dr. Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and fashion psychologist, told Forbes that clothing has "symbolic meaning." Because of the symbolism certain outfits hold, when we put them on, we assume the attitudes we associate with them. So, if people are rocking hoodies in their cubicles, they're likely to feel more relaxed. There's nothing wrong with that if your office maintains professionalism across the board, but that sort of attitude can quickly slip into unproductive behavior, or worse. Issues are much more likely to happen if there is a general feeling of acceptance for inappropriate behavior, or leadership examples of bad behavior.

For some offices, if the "let's-keep-it-relaxed" attitude isn't kept in check, problems could develop. When desks begin to resemble beer pong tables and computer use is more pornographic than productive, you know you've let something go wrong in your office. While relaxation is a good thing, allowing the workplace to spiral into a frat house is not a good idea. As much as we all would like to go back to college, when memories are hazy, chaotic and probably not-at-all academic, the office is not the place for it. Keeping cool around the cubicles is fine, as long as employees work as hard as they play and never let the relaxed behavior get out of hand, or turn into something much worse.