How Indie Beauty Brands Prevent Toxic Workplace Cultures From Developing

Over the last several days, Instagram account Estée Laundry has been posting anonymous accounts of bullying and toxic workplace cultures at beauty brands big and small. In light of those accounts, in this edition of Beauty Independent’s ongoing series posing questions to beauty entrepreneurs, we asked 22 brand founders and executives: How do you root out bullying in your organization and ensure you don’t have a toxic workplace culture?

Alex Dastmalchi CEO and Founder, Vanity Planet

We have a zero-tolerance policy against bullying. Although we have not had any issues to date, we will immediately terminate any team member irrelevant to their title if they engage in bullying of any sort. I personally think that our cultural success is a direct result of our hiring practices. Any candidate that we review has to fit our culture first. I would say that we collectively are passionate, casual, yet accountable individuals. We pride ourselves on the fact that our hiring decision is first and foremost based on the core values and the integrity of a candidate and, then, their skills.

Yanghee Paik CEO and Co-Founder, Rael

Since we’re a startup still in the early stage, I have been lucky enough to have handpicked every single employee of our company. When I interview candidates, I very much focus on finding those who care about our company mission, have a track record of working well with teams, and project great energy and pleasant personalities.

Also, as the company grows, it is getting more and more important that we have the right talent leading each team. How the leadership group treats and develops their team members tells a lot about the company culture. So, by hiring the right talent and employing a 360-degree performance evaluation, we’ve been able to foster a collaborative and positive company culture at Rael.

Cherie Hoeger Co-Founder, Saalt

How well you maintain a strong and healthy office culture is directly tied to how well you maintain your company's core values. Core values don't just live on paper or annual meeting slides. They are the heart and soul of your organization, and the ultimate measuring stick that determines how you hire, fire, and do business in every interaction, and in every decision every day.

Core values should be passionately debated and earned and, then, relentlessly defended and upheld. That means that, if you adopt a no ego and no jerk policy to protect your team, you have to be prepared to act on the first sign of a violation because whether you do or don't sends a powerful message to your team on what you will and won't put up with.

Organizations must root out workplace bullying before it stifles employee productivity and creativity, and drives away your best people. Your values have the power to draw a clear line in the sand to attract amazing talent and protect your employees, but it's up to you as a leader to uphold them.

Natalia Bednarek Founder, Herla Beauty

I personally think that it’s much easier to have a healthy office culture and work environment when you’re a startup with a small team of people united by company’s mission, compared to larger organizations driven by financial goals above all.

At Herla, the key to ensuring a healthy work environment is mutual respect regardless of age. Our team is primarily women, so the gender doesn’t play a role. It’s important for me that people we work with have an open mind and are considerate when it comes to other people’s ideas and perspective. We avoid being judgmental. I always want to treat people the way I would want to be treated.

Tina Chow Rudolf Founder, Strange Bird

This is such an important question. Thank you for asking it. In order to design a great work environment absent of bullying, there are a few questions I ask myself. Am I creating an environment for my people that is open and supportive? Do I make time for people to share what’s happening with them? When I notice someone is upset or insecure or emotional, do I seek to understand what is happening or hope it just works itself out? 

Bullying thrives in the dark. As the leader of Strange Bird, it’s up to me to create a space that lets the light in. The beauty of this approach is that, of course, it sorts out the most obvious images of bullying: the mean girl that torments and controls the others. But it also goes straight to the root of the problem. It’s more often our own negative inner dialogue that prevents us from being our best selves. It sounds like, “I’m not good enough. My boss doesn’t like me. I’ll never get that promotion. I’m not pretty enough, smart enough, connected enough.” The list goes on and on. 

The self-bullying is perhaps more destructive than the mean girl and, when left unattended, can translate into a toxic culture in our lives and our workplace. The mission of Strange Bird is to empower women to live their best lives. So, of course, this includes creating a safe space within my company for people to fulfill their potential and thrive, and that always begins with understanding the whole person and what they might be battling with inside.

Mariska Nicholson Founder, Olive + M

My in-house team and I work from a home office. There are four of us. We call ourselves the core four. We are all very different. Collectively, we represent mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, mentors, leaders, teachers, learners, heterosexuals, homosexuals, lovers and fighters. By fighters, I mean ambitious go getters.

Thankfully, I cannot speak to the bullying piece in our organization because also, collectively, we see each other as equals. We all come to the table with the belief that we are here in this life to build one another up and, not just in the workplace, but in all areas of our lives. We ensure that we have a toxic-free work environment by communicating openly, honestly and with our heart. We lead with love.

We also believe you can accomplish so much more when you put your best foot forward in a positive direction and not with your boot on someone’s neck. So, when disagreements arise, and they will, we have a grounded, safe place to come from to find resolution and solve problems.

Ira Kaganovsky Green CEO and Founder, Freedom

I was recently faced with this situation with an advisor and CEO. Bullying comes in many different forms, mine came from the boys club. They obviously knew everything and I knew nothing because, what do girls know? It was a constant fight, and I found that they were emailing each other about me behind my back. 

So, what did I do? I got rid of the cancer. Just because someone is good at their job (why I held on so long) doesn’t mean they are good for your culture. A bad attitude will take everyone down, a cancer spread quickly. I now hire slowly, fire quickly and diversify. No more boys club or girls club, for that matter. We are one team! 

Sarah Kugelman Founder, Skyn Iceland

I have had a lot of bullying and toxic cultures in my corporate life in the past, and part of the reason for starting my own company was to get away from that and create an environment where people feel safe, happy and enjoy coming to work every day. You know you have a problem when you can’t retain talent. We have done a good job at retention.

I will say that I have zero tolerance for bullying or toxicity and, if I see it at Skyn Iceland, I will terminate someone if I feel they are poisoning the culture. I have seen one person alone create a toxic environment within the company, and I’ve had to weed those people out. Sometimes, you don’t realize it until they are gone. I have found that it’s very hard to fix. It’s a fit issue. if someone is poisoning the waters, they just have to go and quickly. Sometimes it can be within weeks of hiring someone, but you just have to cut the cord.

Joshua Neumann Founder, Kind Lips

As a leader of an organization, I believe the culture of a company is set by the leaders from the top down. I believe bullying is something that is a learned behavior from a very young age and because those behaviors have been known for so long by the time the individual reaches the workforce, they, unfortunately, happen without individuals even realizing they are acting like a bully.

I don’t believe there is one best way to root out bullying in any organization. Every company is made up of individuals that come from unique and diverse backgrounds with different life experiences and, therefore, rooting out bullying should be treated differently by each organization. Even though the company culture should be set by the leadership, the onus to have an inclusive and bully-free workplace falls on each and every individual in the company.

Each person should take responsibility if they are the bully as well as each individual should take responsibility if they feel bullied. The person being bullied should feel safe enough, based on the culture set by the leadership, to tell their leadership what has happened and how it made them feel. The person who is acting like a bully, once leadership is aware, should be encountered in a way that allows them to understand how they made the other person feel as well as given an opportunity to understand the root of the issue and why they felt the need to treat that person in that way.

All companies are made up of people, and none of us are remotely close to being perfect. Therefore, companies should encourage a culture of kindness, inclusion, positivity, and collaboration, and not bullying or gossip. Each organization should allow grace for individuals who mess up and show them they are valued and, at the same time, setting an expectation that the bullying behavior will not acceptable if it continues.

Evelyn Subramaniam Founder, Bija Essence

Bullying is not a question, not permitted and not welcomed, period. We are a startup small firm with two assistants and freelancers during busy times. As the founder, I encourage our team to learn and understand our brand values, mission and voice. That is the first thing I discuss with them. If they don’t agree, then they are not the right fit.

To continue fair and inclusive behavior in the company, I have the team listen in on some of my phone conversations and personal meetings so that they understand the voice and culture that Bija Essence strives for. This is like role modeling, and it often works well. So far, the team members that have been with us are still with us or continue to have a mutual great relationship. We are proud of that.

Abbott Stark Co-Founder, Ogee

We as founders wanted to create a place that we looked forward to going to every day. We’ve always worked to create a Golden Rule-type of culture. Treat others as you want to be treated and try to do the humane thing in any situation. We don’t have a big hierarchy. Founders work among the team members in a very democratic manner, and we collaborate and value inputs from every level of the team.

I think having openness and valuing feedback goes a long way. Our team members have pride of workmanship. We also have amazing health insurance and flexible work schedules, and we’ve allowed people to work remotely. We try to be incredibly humane whenever the pressures of life push against the asks of our brand.

It really benefits the brand and the product to create a positive culture where people feel safe and can thrive. As small brands working to make big, fundamental changes in the way that products are made and ingredients are sourced, there’s a lot of good will in the industry in terms of getting press coverage, giving shelf placement and consumers taking a chance on a new brand. We are very careful to honor that good will.

Beatrice Dixon Founder, The Honey Pot Company

Energy is everything. We’re all energy-based creatures. With that being said, I focus on breeding an environment of positivity and creativity. We don’t do toxic energy and work hard to cut that off as soon as it flares up. One way to do that is through open lines of communication and establishing trust amongst one another so things don’t escalate. We also don’t have egos in our office. None of us take ourselves too seriously.

Ashley Prange Founder, Au Naturale

In all honesty, my experience with bullying from within my team is limited. When issues do arise, it's generally do to different management styles paired with poor communication skills. When I sense tension from within my team, we have an all-hands meeting to address the issue. We encourage people to have an open conversation about their frustrations, and a solution is typically reached.

Emilie Davidson Hoyt Founder, Lather

I always remind our team that what we’re doing is important and how much I appreciate their dedication. What I have seen over the years is that nothing works as well as transparency and communication from the leadership of an organization. As a founder and leader, it’s important to take accountability, show vulnerability and express gratitude and most importantly listen.

If you make a deliberate effort in these areas, you will be rewarded with a positive team who works hard together to further the vision. At the end of the day, it’s also vitally important to respect a healthy work-life balance. It saddens me when I hear that so many people lead an unhealthy lifestyle to support wellness-based companies. I feel passionate that as a wellness company, we support our employees to be the best version of themselves.

Brian Oh CEO and Co-Founder, Venn

What brands like us would need to do in terms of setting the right work culture would be different when compared to larger companies. For us, we have around 17 employees full-time, the work culture, including respecting diversity and being respectful and professional when working with other people, is really set by the founders.

Also, it’s very important to define the appropriate work culture and consistently educate the employees of it. If the founders are unclear or ambivalent of the appropriate work culture, or even worse, if the founders are the ones creating the toxic culture, the employees will think that the toxic behavior is OK and condoned at the workplace.

I think it is a lot easier for companies of smaller size to enforce the appropriate work culture. But it’s important to realize that it’s the company culture created and enforced by the founders early on that carries on forward as the company grows.

Delane Mazaheri CEO and Co-Founder, Stare Cosmetics

Building a brand is more than just a good product and packaging. We focus on identifying like-minded team members who have value systems in-line with the Stare ethos. Stare has a strict no-bullying policy and, as a company, we will not tolerate any aggressive or inappropriate behavior.

We host monthly meetings to check in with our teams. This promotes communication as a group and helps our management identify underlying personality conflicts. We can observe our teams and see who within those teams are progressing and making progress, and who may be struggling with a task or struggling with another member of the team.

Building a non-toxic work environment starts with the hiring process. We feel the interview process is critical when getting to know the candidate. Allowing key managers to assist in the interview will help diversify your candidates’ responses and help you and your teams to identify personality traits that may not be right for your organization.

Nina Zilka CEO and Co-Founder, Alder New York

At Alder New York, we see that the culture of a company is set from the top down. The way the top leadership treats each other and the people working for them really dictates how the people in the company interact with each other. I make it a priority to treat anyone I work with with respect. I respect their time and energy and, as such, I expect anyone at Alder New York to do the same.

Deborah Burnes Founder, Sumbody

We start with a culture of inclusion, solutions and embracing. How we define what we mean by this is the following.

Inclusion: Each staff member is a valuable piece of our success, and we honor that. We allow them to feel included in all aspects and encourage collaboration. We also represent many different walks of life and make sure each person feels supported and included by our culture. We encourage what I call "good gossip.” We try to give positive feedback and accolades others have said about them to our staff on a regular basis. We feel by modeling a culture of positivity, bringing out the wonderful things people say about each other—“good gossip"—we create and bring that energy to both the company and our products.

Solutions: We acknowledge that people may have issues with coworkers, policies or other aspects of their job. We encourage a clear pathway to communication and resolution. We ask our staff members to not create negative gossip amongst each other, but, if they're having an issue, to go to their manager, who is the only person who can offer them a solution. Instead of focusing on the problem, we like to focus on the solutions with a positive outcome. Flexibility, honoring people's concerns and making swift changes is where we focus our energy.

We also support people and their personal lives and have the flexibility to work around their needs. This includes, but is not limited to, hours, times and days they work, and mobility within the company. We take our responsibility to our customers to heart. Since we manufacture our products, we make sure we are putting workplace joy and love into them. If someone isn't feeling up to it, they know they can always go home without consequence.

Embracing: We embrace that we are all different, and hear, address and process things differently as well as we have different needs. We embrace our differences with respect and tolerance. We truly feel that by creating a culture where people feel heard, supported, included and important, while having zero tolerance for people speaking to coworkers about each other in a negative manner, it leaves no room for bullying.

Murphy D. Bishop II Co-Founder, The Better Skin Co.

I think it’s much easier for upstart indie brands. We have a big network of contractors and a small in-house staff. We work in an open space, and we all interact all day long. Our culture is super relaxed, and we don’t have billion-dollar numbers to anniversary, so there’s less pressure. I think legacy brands versus new are inherently different because the expected output and the way you achieve it are different.

Loraine R. Dowdy    CEO and Founder, Coloured Raine Cosmetics

Coloured Raine is blessed enough to where we don’t and have not experienced any bullying. We make it our duty to say a prayer amongst staff every morning before the start of work, and we encourage one another with love and laughter. The plus side as well is I employ my family. So, it’s a much more familiar and relaxed environment.

Brandi Leifso CEO and Founder, Evio Beauty Group
At Evio, we literally have a seven-foot-tall neon sign as the centerpiece when you enter Evio HQ that says, "Do the right thing, even when no one's looking." We truly live by this, starting with the hiring process. Although skills are important, during the hiring process what the most important thing to us is the right value set and culture fit.  At times, things have slipped. Not everyone always gets along. We never let this fester and have a policy of addressing any issue within 24 hours. At Evio's core, we are a people company that believes in investing in our team to not only thrive professionally, but also personally to be generally happy, secure people that don't bully other people. They're too busy growing into amazing humans themselves.
Lauren Parisier Co-Founder, Basq NYC

We have a decentralized environment, which allows work flexibly and encourages a shared mission of success. Because everyone sets their own work time table, the culture fosters a desire for brand success vs internal competition. We encourage everyone to share what works and what doesn’t work which also allows both to have value. Setting the brands growth and success as the common metric for everyone, makes group success more available.

If you have a question you’d like Beauty Independent to ask beauty entrepreneurs, please send it to [email protected].