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Some Employment Law and Workplace-Related Thoughts Regarding Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You

A couple of weekends ago, I saw Sorry to Bother You, a film written and directed by Boots Riley. The film—Riley’s first—has received much acclaim and currently has a 95% critics’ rating on the website Rotten Tomatoes.

Though the film eventually takes an ambitious turn, its initial premise is that the main character, Cassius Green (played by Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield), is hired for a telemarketing position and struggles until he begins utilizing his “white voice” while on the telephone with customers. Sorry to Bother You posits an alternate, yet eerily familiar, universe where certain aspects of our society predominate, including economic displacement and the dumbing down of entertainment.

Riley, who founded the hip-hop group The Coup in 1991, has a personal and family history of political and economic activism. Given Riley’s background, it is not surprising that Sorry to Bother You addresses several workplace-related matters. Below—with very light spoilers—are my thoughts regarding a few such issues.

Code-Switching

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In Sorry to Bother You, Green initially struggles in his telemarketing job. However, he is advised by another black colleague (played by Danny Glover) to use his “white voice.” Green is a natural at utilizing this previously unknown talent.  He begins to excel at his job, eventually working his way up to becoming a top seller who handles lucrative sales calls for his employer, Regal View Telemarketing.

What Green does in Sorry to Bother You is an exaggerated version of what is often referred to as “code-switching.” In an article titled “‘What’s up with that white voice?’: The tricky art of linguistic code-switching,” Washington Post writer Sonia Rao describes code-switching as follows:

Code-switching, or altering the way you speak based on the audience, is a widespread phenomenon among those whose accents and dialects stray from the national standard, long considered in the United States to be the language patterns of the Midwest. A Southerner working as a news anchor in the North might avoid using elongated vowels. A Latina might ditch the Spanglish slang she uses with friends while interacting with white co-workers. After a scolding, an African American child might refrain from speaking in vernacular English at school.

As Rao notes, “[u]nconsciously or not, people code-switch to present what they believe (or are told) is a more favorable version of themselves.” In Sorry to Bother You, Green even uses his “white voice” at one point without even being aware he is doing so.

Code-switching is common in the workplace, and its implications and consequences are complex. Employees who code-switch may perform well in their jobs. For many, the line between “code-switching” and “professionalism” may be thin or even nonexistent.

However, the fact that employees engage in code-switching is largely thought to result from implicit biases. If that is the case, those biases may be worth exploring.  As recently discussed in a Forbes article titled “Unconscious Bias in the Workplace: You Can’t Afford to Ignore It,” business leaders should be asking “Where is the unconscious bias in my company and what is the impact?” Implicit bias training provided by counsel or experts in that field may be a worthwhile endeavor for a company seeking to improve workplace morale and culture, as well as employee performance.

Union Organizing and Concerted Activity

One aspect of the storyline in Sorry to Bother You involves employees at Regal View Telemarketing engaging in work stoppages and picketing in order to obtain concessions from their employer. At one point, telemarketers stop taking calls and chant “F*** Regal View!”  Suffice it to say, Regal View management is not happy. But what can be done?

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) provides broad protections for employees seeking to improve compensation and working conditions. Section 7 of the NLRA states:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargaining, or other mutual aid or protection, and shall have the right to refrain from any or all such activities.

Section 8 of the NLRA makes it an unfair labor practice for an employer “to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of the rights guaranteed in Section 7” of the NLRA. The National Labor Relations Board website lists numerous examples of actions employers may not take in response to employee organization efforts or concerted activity, including, but not limited to:

  • Threatening employees with adverse consequences, such as closing the workplace, loss of benefits, or more onerous working conditions, if they support a union, engage in union activity, or select a union to represent them.
  • Threatening employees with adverse consequences if they engage in protected, concerted activity.
  • Promising employees benefits if they reject the union.
  • Implying a promise of benefits by soliciting grievances from employees during a union organizing campaign.
  • Conferring benefits on employees during a union organizing campaign to induce employees to vote against the union.
  • Withholding changes in wages or benefits during a union organizing campaign that would have been made had the union not been on the scene, unless you make clear to employees that the change will occur whether or not they select the union, and that your sole purpose in postponing the change is to avoid any appearance of trying to influence the outcome of the election.
  • Prohibiting employees from talking about the union during working time if you permit them to talk about other non-work-related subjects.
  • Spying on employees’ union activities. (“Spying” means doing something out of the ordinary to observe the activity. Seeing open union activity in workplace areas frequented by supervisors is not “spying.”)
  • Discharging, constructively discharging, suspending, laying off, failing to recall from layoff, demoting, disciplining, or taking any other adverse action against employees because of their protected, concerted activities.

Often, there is a tension between workplace rules and employee rights granted under the NLRA. For example, the chanting Regal View employees may have been acting in a manner inconsistent with the company’s personnel rules by chanting profanities. However, they were arguably “engag[ing] in other concerted activities for the purposes of collective bargaining, or other mutual aid or protection” when doing so. Terms in agreements that prohibit employees from discussion compensation and other workplace issues may also run afoul of the NLRA. Accordingly, employers should consult with counsel when developing policies, drafting agreements, and dealing with potential concerted activity on the part of employees to ensure NLRA compliance.

Private Contracting Around Employment Laws

In the dystopian-light alternate universe of Sorry to Bother You, the world’s largest company is called Worry Free.  In television advertisements and billboards, Worry Free offers workers lifetime contracts to live, be housed, and be fed at their worksites. During the film, it is indicated Worry Free’s lifetime contracts allow it to skirt employment laws, including the minimum wage requirement.

Of course, in our world, employers cannot contract around wage and hour, workplace safety, and other laws meant to protect employees.