Jul 04, 2014

    Tinder lawsuit: Beware of sparks at the office

    TECH-INDUSTRY sexism is well-documented, yet the harassment and discrimination lawsuit brought by Whitney Wolfe against the mobile app company Tinder, its parent Match.com and majority shareholder IAC is especially poignant: Tinder is a dating app that owes its success partly to Ms Wolfe's marketing efforts targeting young women.

    The story described in the lawsuit could be a movie script. In 2012, Ms Wolfe, then in her early 20s, worked as a marketer with a start-up team at an IAC-funded incubator.

    She lobbied successfully for the team to switch from developing a customer-loyalty app to a dating one, which would let users find dates based on their locations, according to the suit. She suggested promoting it on campuses and even came up with the name: "Tinder helps to light a flame, which had obvious dating analogies."

    Since she was the app's public face and the media lit on her as that rare animal in tech - a woman executive - Tinder chief executive Sean Rad allowed her to call herself a co-founder.

    In an article quoted in the lawsuit, the Wire wrote that women accepted Tinder in part because "one of its four founders, Whitney Wolfe, is a woman".

    Tinder quickly became a hit. It is now No. 1 in the Lifestyle category in the US App Store and the 45th-most-downloaded app.

    Then Mr Rad hired Justin Mateen as chief marketing officer and Ms Wolfe's boss, the suit claims. Within two months, by November 2012, he was allegedly interested in Ms Wolfe romantically and she responded to him.

    It did not work out: Mr Mateen proved intensely jealous and she found him too controlling. Their text exchanges, attached as exhibits to the suit, paint a too-familiar picture of a deteriorating relationship, in which she goes from trying to calm him ("I won't engage when you're attacking and accusing. If u want to be sweet and loving, I'm happy to respond") to trying to break off communication ("And please stop for the last time. You are harassing me.")

    According to Ms Wolfe, Mr Mateen took his frustration out on her at work and at corporate events, calling her names and bad-mouthing her to colleagues. She took the matter to Mr Rad, but he allegedly took no action. In April this year, she resigned, with Mr Rad treating her as a legal threat.

    If Ms Wolfe's chronicling of what happened is accurate, Mr Mateen and Mr Rad were in the wrong. Mr Mateen used his position as her boss to damage her, and Mr Rad failed to intervene. After the lawsuit was made public, IAC suspended Mr Mateen.

    According to a survey of HR professionals conducted last year by the Society for Human Resource Management, 42 per cent of companies have policies that limit workplace romance, compared with 20 per cent in 2005. In 99 per cent of the companies that have adopted such policies, relationships between bosses and subordinates are forbidden.

    Tech start-ups probably would not have adopted these rules, but there is a good reason why companies are doing so: Not all matches are made in heaven and some deteriorate into hell, making it impossible for people to keep working together.

    When that happens, chances are that the boss (usually the man) will stay and the underling will have to leave.

    Ms Wolfe makes her former boyfriend and Mr Rad out to be misogynists, who repeatedly omitted her from the list of Tinder co-founders because she was a young woman and that "devalued the company".

    If so, she did a great job of fighting that perception. She was rewarded with a high profile in the media, as well as the share options due to a co-founder. Then she got involved with Mr Mateen and lost it all.

    In another company, with better workplace rules, one of the two would have had to change departments or resign once they began dating - and that is the smart thing to do, with or without rules.