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At London’s Badoo, Job Perks Include Pole Dancers and Sushi Served on Models

At a moment when sexualized office cultures are a source of major scrutiny, a Tinder rival is counting on that to help its recruiting efforts.

More than 60 million people use Badoo Trading Ltd.’s dating app in places like Latin America and Russia, but back home in London, all anybody knows about it are the parties. Half-naked women dressed as mermaids. Almost-naked models used as sushi platters. Others coated in body paint. Notice a theme? At this spring’s Too Funky Friday party, a George Michael tribute act shook his retro booty onstage while a bikini-clad woman danced on a stripper pole and others circulated in skimpy police and carnival costumes.

These wild soirees are used as a recruiting tool, say headhunters as well as current and former employees. When not popping champagne in stretch Hummers or slurping vodka out of an ice sculpture engraved with the company logo, Badoo’s staff of about 400 makes a Tinder-esque app that’s not particularly well-known on its home turf. The two staffers who manage the parties full time are helping to widen the startup’s appeal. They’re supplemented by contract event planners, including a company that specializes in circus and cabaret shows. Although nights like the annual Christmas celebration can total $385,000, and an event at a conference in Paris ran close to $2million, the typical Badoo party costs the company $25,000 to $45,000, the company says. By the end of 2015, there was one every week.

All that partying is starting to take a toll—and not just a financial one. A series of employees complained to human resources and several left Badoo last year because of the parties and Badoo’s broader workplace culture, according to six current and former employees. The complaints were pretty consistent, those people say: Badoo’s casual style could often be a plus, but its regularly sexualized office culture wasn’t what the departing workers said they’d signed up for. Last year, the frequency of the parties began to slow from weekly to monthly.

Badoo says it hasn’t received any serious or “official” complaints about its work environment or the parties. Andrey Andreev, the company’s 43-year-old founder and chief executive officer, says they’re meant to reward staffers, many of whom are young Russians living away from home for the first time. “Themes and entertainment are selected by our employees, both males and females, and based on their suggestions and feedback,” he says. Recruiters and former employees say the events have indeed defined Badoo’s reputation in London and often help Andreev compete with more lucrative offers from the likes of Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc.

Last summer’s 10th anniversary celebration, held at an amusement park, featured women dressed mostly in body paint. “Occasionally, some themes don’t match my personal taste,” Andreev says, adding that he recently replaced his event-planning contractors. The CEO notes that Badoo also hosts family-friendly events, including a Christmas party for the staff’s children.

Children weren’t invited to the most recent Christmas party, though. That was the one where people ate sushi off models.

“It’s certainly misguided and inappropriate,” Jo Keddie, an employment lawyer at Winckworth Sherwood, says of Badoo’s party culture. It’s also risky, given the high-profile claims of sexual harassment and discrimination roiling companies including Uber Technologies Inc. Uber has been conducting an internal investigation of its workplace culture since February, when engineer Susan Fowler published a widely read blog post detailing alleged harassment and other mistreatment she faced there.

Badoo, founded in 2006, predates Uber as well as most other dating apps for smartphones. It makes money from users who pay for greater visibility in the app or to send digital gifts, like images of roses or underpants, to prospective partners. (The purchases mostly come from men.) Andreev says the company is profitable but declined to comment further on its finances. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, Badoo’s U.K. subsidiary disclosed revenue of 59.3million pounds ($76million) and an operating profit of 304,000 pounds. The primary holding company is based in the British Virgin Islands, which doesn’t require public disclosures.

Over the past few years, Andreev has been trying to expand his business portfolio. Last year the company bought Lulu, a mobile app that let women anonymously rate men. It has since shuttered the app, and Lulu founder Alexandra Chong, who had become a senior executive at Badoo, left after only five months. Badoo said they parted ways amicably. Chong declined to comment.

Badoo is the majority shareholder in Bumble, a swipe-based dating app created by former Tinder executive Whitney Wolfe. There’s more than a little irony there: Among heterosexual users, Bumble requires women to initiate conversations, in an effort to reduce harassment from men. Wolfe sued Tinder for sexual harassment and discrimination in 2014. Tinder denied wrongdoing and settled the case.

Wolfe runs Bumble from Austin and says she hasn’t attended one of Badoo’s parties. But the two teams work well together, she says; Andreev helped her develop Bumble and is set to be a groomsman at her upcoming wedding. “I’ve never actually myself attended a Badoo party, but a lot of my employees have,” Wolfe says. “They’ve never once said anything apart from how great it is. I can say, unequivocally, I would not be working for a frat house.”

As Badoo was gearing up for a recent Too Funky Friday, the Bumble team was planning a separate event. A main attraction at the Winter Bumbleland Party at the Coachella music festival in April featured a garden where guests could make snow angels. One of Bumble’s tag lines reads: “Misogyny isn’t welcome here.”

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