Startups are renown for their relaxed, collegial work atmosphere. While having a more casual atmosphere can boost employee morale and is important for startups to attract talent, that doesn’t mean that entrepreneurs should permit their workplace to become unprofessional. Not only can that actually lead to a drop in productivity or potentially turn off clients, but can also lead to legal liability for startup managers and owners.
The first thing entrepreneurs may want to consider in creating a casual-yet-professional workplace is a dress code, especially if you meet with clients or investors at your office. At the very least, you may want to consider discouraging clothing with a tattered, worn, or distressed look, especially if outside persons are visiting your office.
However, issues to consider for legal liabilities are policies regarding drinking and drugs in the workplace, social media, and offensive and derogatory language.
It goes without saying that alcohol and drugs should be prohibited from the workplace; however, you should also try to take steps to discourage any association between drinking and the workplace. It’s okay if you want to enjoy a drink with your company (while there’s still only a handful of you!) after a big event such as a product launch, receiving funding, or meeting a revenue milestone, but you should probably take the company out to a bar or a restaurant for it, after work hours (even if it costs a little more). You don’t want to create an association between alcohol and the workplace — you can be liable for damage caused by employees under the influence while on the job, and it can be difficult to terminate an employee drinking on the job if that drinking is related to alcoholism (which is considered a disease or a disability and therefore subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act).
You may also want to set rules and guidelines regarding social media use in the workplace. In addition to discouraging employees from spending all day on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest, you may also want to discourage employees from discussing their work at the company on social media. Aside from creating bad publicity if an employee makes disparaging comments, either about the company itself or another business the company is related to, you also don’t want employees revealing information that should remain private — for example, you might not want an employee broadcasting the fact that your company is seeking investors, as it might be considered a public solicitation of a private offering, which is still prohibited under the securities laws in many cases.
Finally, you should also discourage and prohibit offensive and derogatory language in the workplace. While blue comedy in the office may be fine as long as the company still only consists of you and your friends (whose sensibilities you are likely familiar with), once you start bringing in outside employees, public offensive or derogatory language in the workplace should be avoided. The last thing a startup needs is a discrimination or harassment lawsuit — even if offensive or derogatory language is not directed at a particular employee, you don’t want to want to create an uncomfortable working atmosphere that may ultimately force talent to leave.