Lizzo Lawsuit Shows Employers ‘It’s About Damn Time’ They Train Their Managers

Recently, one of my favorite artists, Lizzo, made headlines when three of her backup dancers filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court against her, her tour company (Big Grrrl Big Touring Inc.), and her dance team captain. There are various allegations in this lawsuit, but I want to focus on the sexual harassment/hostile work environment claims. All three defendants are being accused of hostile work environment and failure to prevent or correct sexual harassment in the workplace. The plaintiffs claim they were pressured to attend a nude performance in Amsterdam and that one of the plaintiffs was pressured to touch another dancer’s breast. And then there’s the allegation involving a banana … I wish I were joking.   

What actually occurred on that tour will be the subject of much discovery as this suit progresses (if it isn’t settled or dismissed first), but the first reaction I had when I saw these allegations was: “It appears that Lizzo fell into a classic new manager mistake: trying to treat her employees as her friends.” OK, maybe my first reaction had something to do with that banana, but my first reaction when I put my employment lawyer hat on was definitely the whole friends thing.

Being a manager of people isn’t easy. People, by their very nature, like to be liked, but sometimes managers have to do things that make employees not like them so much. Managers have to make sure the work gets done right and on time. They have to offer criticism and evaluate performance. They have to discipline and sometimes terminate employees. And they do all of these things to the people they spend the most time in the world with—the people they work with—because, let’s face it, most of the time we spend at home with our loved ones, we’re asleep. And when you spend so much time with people, it’s only natural to care for them and treat them like your friends or even family.

And I know what you’re thinking right now: “Rachel, what does this have to do with Lizzo asking her dancers to go to a nudie bar in Amsterdam? My managers are never going to do that.” And you’re right. That’s probably never going to happen in your workplace because you likely don’t employ a flute-playing, globe-trotting superstar. But you might employ a new manager who wants to be liked by their team, so they invite some of them to a bar (or even a strip club) to unwind after they complete a really stressful project. You might have a new manager who just posted on Facebook about the crazy night of debauchery they had at a recent bachelor party. (Or, worse, they threw that bachelor party for one of their subordinates.) Or perhaps you might have a new manager who lent one of their employees $250 to help pay some bills they’re behind on after listening to their entire life story.  

Training managers on how to navigate “my employees are not my friends” is essential for all new managers. I include it in all of my basic manager training programs. In those programs, I always cover:

  1. The basics of employment law and company policies on equal employment opportunity, discrimination, harassment, and accommodations in the workplace. It’s often assumed new managers know these things when their only past exposure to these issues was at orientation when they received their employee handbook (which they probably didn’t read). New managers need to be trained early on how to recognize discrimination/harassment in the workplace, what to do when they witness it, and what to do when they receive a report of it.
  2. The potential liability managers could expose the company and themselves to when the line between employee and friend gets blurred. Many new managers don’t understand that as managers, they are the face and the voice of the company. In other words, when they do something inappropriate, it’s as if the company’s doing it, as well.
  3. The hard truth about how friendships mean little after a termination occurs. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had the following conversation with a witness in a discrimination case. Manager: “But we were friends. We played softball together every spring. Our wives play mahjong together.” Me: “Well, you fired them, and now they’re calling you a racist in a publicly filed lawsuit.”
  4. An explanation of how treating certain employees like friends can create the appearance of favoritism and unfairness.
  5. How the Internet is forever, why they should be considerate about their use of social media, and why unfriending/unfollowing subordinates is a good idea.
  6. How to document employee issues and how to effectively (and properly) communicate with employees (even when they get on their last nerve).
  7. When to call (not e-mail) HR.

I always end my basic manager training by conducting role-playing exercises. Role-playing is an excellent way to get new managers comfortable with having the types of tough conversations that managers often have to have. They also help new managers understand that being a strong leader sometimes means you won’t be the most liked person in the office, but that’s OK because that’s the job.

While new manager training is essential, don’t forget about your seasoned managers either. Just because a manager has been managing people for a long time doesn’t mean they can’t learn a thing or two in training. In addition, they can offer advice and insights to the new managers from their years of experience.

Finally, providing this type of training not only is essential for litigation avoidance but, in the event the company is ever sued, also serves as excellent evidence that your company takes the elimination of discrimination in the workplace seriously. Juries want to see that employers are doing more than just handing out the employee handbook and asking managers to sign the acknowledgment page. Today’s juries want to see that the company trained its managers on its policies, the law, and what to do if they see or hear about discrimination or harassment in the workplace. With the million-dollar verdicts we’ve been seeing in employment cases in recent years, this type of manager training just makes good business sense.

Rachel Ullrich is a partner at FordHarrison.

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