Away Embroiled in Employment Controversy. Will Lawsuits Follow?

By Douglas Lipsky

New York-based direct-to-consumer luggage company Away has been mired in turmoil since a scathing exposé on its toxic work culture appeared in The Verge. If you have been subjected to unfair treatment in your workplace, it takes a highly skilled employment lawyer to assert your rights. 

Did Away executives create a hostile work environment in the company?

The Dec. 5, 2019 Verge story featured interviews with 14 former employees who portrayed company CEO Steph Korey as a demanding boss who publicly berated customer-experience employees and managers on the widely used chat app: Slack. 

Away relies on Slack for employee communications rather than email and the company imposes strict guidelines its use. Direct messages were to be used rarely and private Slack channels were only to be created for work-specific reasons. One private channel called #Hot Topics became a “safe space” for marginalized LGBTQ and minority employees to express their grievances, however, which may have violated Away’s policy.

When company executives, including Korey, learned about the private channel in May 2018, six employees were terminated for making comments on Slack that were deemed to be “discriminatory,” “hateful” and “racist,” though Korey denies using the term racist. 

According to The Verge, this incident adversely affected morale at the company, and the firings were part of a long-standing pattern of abusive behavior by company executives:

  • Employees were consistently pressured to work long hours without overtime pay and limit their paid time off
  • Employees’ work was harshly criticized on public Slack channels
  • Employees were publicly reprimanded for not answering messages immediately

Shortly after the story was published, Korey announced that she would step down as CEO and be replaced by a former Lululemon executive. Korey reversed course in mid-January, however, saying that she would not capitulate to the “Twitter mob” and that she was staying on as co-CEO. Away also announced it had hired a prominent law firm known for winning defamation cases to demand retractions and corrections from The Verge, which has stood by its story.

Why This Matters

While the claims about Away in The Verge have not been independently verified, the article highlights a number of potential employment-related issues at the company. 

Although Korey’s management style is questionable, having a bad boss does not necessarily constitute a hostile work environment, which involves a pattern of offensive comments or conduct that make it impossible for an employee to perform his or her job. In addition, the misconduct must target a protected status, such as sex, race, national origin, age, sexual orientation, religion, or disability.

Away also has discretion to dictate how employees can use internal communication systems like Slack; it is unclear whether the alleged comments of terminated employees violated company policy, however. Finally, while Away claims that it now pays overtime to eligible employees, certain workers may have previously been misclassified as exempt.

At the end of the day, all workers in New York deserve to be treated fairly. If you believe your employment rights have been violated, turn to Lipsky Lowe. We will be the strength in your corner. 

About the Author
Douglas Lipsky is a co-founding partner of Lipsky Lowe LLP. He has extensive experience in all areas of employment law, including discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environment, retaliation, wrongful discharge, breach of contract, unpaid overtime, and unpaid tips. He also represents clients in complex wage and hour claims, including collective actions under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and class actions under the laws of many different states. If you have questions about this article, contact Douglas today.