Skeevy TV raises harassment threshold for sitcom writers

August 12, 2013 - by: Brian Kurtz 1 COMMENTS
Brian Kurtz

Law school will ruin your life in so many ways.

I used to watch television in a state of blissful ignorance. Holes in the plot? Didn’t notice. Inconsistent character behavior week to week? Didn’t care. Offensive, sexually charged dialogue? Didn’t mind at all.

Then I became a lawyer, and now my clients are employers who do mind that last kind of thing when it happens in their conference rooms, around their water coolers, or wherever else their employees congregate to ogle one another. Sexual harassment is a serious thing, the public loves salacious stories, and juries love to punish the wallets of companies that permit drooling, predatory managers to roam the hallways. When the boss whispers all sorts of naughty things to his secretary, it’s a lawsuit. When he does it on my Sony HD during prime time, it’s entertainment!

The employment lawyer in me wondered whether the people who lounge about in television writers rooms cranking out this content—and thus are immersed in it on a daily basis—ever stop and say, “Hey, this stuff is offensive, and I feel harassed on the basis of my sex,” or something to that effect. Turns out, those kinds of cases exist.

In 1999, a female writing assistant for the show Friends sued Warner Brothers, NBC, and a number of individuals for sexual harassment based on the NC-17 level of banter among the male writers. By the way, if you are too young to remember Friends, it’s the show that made a lot of people start irrationally caring whether Jennifer Aniston was married, pregnant, or wearing bangs. Anyhow, this is a blog for professionals, so I will refrain from reviewing the allegations in detail. Just imagine a frat house that’s been sealed tight for a week, when suddenly a young coed is dropped into the common room. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court (link here, you’re welcome) where it was dismissed. The court’s reasoning highlights the importance of context in determining whether a plaintiff has been harassed.

The laws prohibiting sexual harassment on the job are not meant to be civility codes. The conduct has to be severe and pervasive enough to quite literally affect someone’s ability to function in the workplace. And the type of workplace can be important. As the court pointed out, Friends was “a creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.” In other words, you cannot say “bitch” and make vulgar hand motions in your office. But this same behavior can be part of the creative process for those who write content for shows you and I probably enjoy.

So the next time you’re watching Mad Men, Californication, or reruns of Don’t Trust the B in Apt. 23 (canceled?! but how?), spare no thought for the writing staff exposed to such smut. Enjoy every f-bomb, c-word, and middle finger guilt-free. Bliss.

Workin’ it in the library

July 25, 2013 - by: Jaclyn West 0 COMMENTS
Jaclyn West

It’s summertime, and the reading is easy. (For many, that is. There are some who like to take advantage of long beach days with a tome they otherwise wouldn’t have time to read; to them, we say more power to you!) As a bookworm, I’m always looking for a good read to take with me, whether that’s to the beach or otherwise—although I do prefer the beach. And as a proud employment law geek, I love it when my pleasure reading gives a nod to my chosen profession. So if you, too, like your summer reading to dish out a generous portion of human resources (I can’t be the only one, now, can I?), here are some of my personal favorites.

Then We Came to the End: A Novel by Joshua FerrisThen We Came to the End was described to me as “Office Space in book form,” and I have to say, that description is apt. The book chronicles a group of employees in a Chicago advertising firm facing deep staffing cuts. It’s narrated in the first-person plural, which is an interesting, little-used perspective, and as a result, it honestly captures the group dynamics of many offices. This dark comedy manages to be simultaneously sad and funny . . . and anyone who has ever looked with an envious eye at a coworker’s office furniture will blush with recognition.

Baker Towers: A Novel by Jennifer Haigh—Employment isn’t the primary focus of Baker Towers, but in a novel sweeping decades of life in a Pennsylvania coal mining town after World War II, you know that labor strife will be part of the picture. When the miners go on strike, the entire town feels the effects—even those who don’t work below ground. Baker Towers is a sensitive, realistic portrayal of life in the Rust Belt, and those of us with a labor bent will find it fascinating.

The Good Girls Revolt: How the Women of Newsweek Sued Their Bosses and Changed the Workplace by Lynn Povich—If you like your beach reading with a side of subversiveness, The Good Girls Revolt is for you. Lynn Povich was a staffer at Newsweek in the 1970s, when the journalism industry was male-dominated. Povich and her female colleagues filed an EEOC charge alleging “systematic discrimination” by the higher-ups at Newsweek, and this is their story. It’s light on legal arguments but heavy on atmosphere, and you’ll feel as if you were there, sitting with the Newsweek women in tension-filled meetings in apartments, planning their next move.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain—According to Quiet, at least one-third of people are introverts, which means there are almost certainly some in your workforce, if you’re not one yourself. Many introverts struggle to fit into an extrovert-dominated workforce, but Susan Cain has good advice on that score. As an introvert myself, I nodded in agreement with many of her tips and anecdotes—but this book isn’t just for introverts. Quiet should be required reading for managers who want to learn more about how their more introverted employees think and work best. Quiet was one of the most talked-about books of 2012, and for good reason. It’s well-researched and absolutely fascinating.

Enough about me—what about you? Are you reading anything employment-related this summer? Do share!

Editor’s note: Blogger Jaclyn West has not been compensated for her book recommendations.

Horrible bosses aren’t always male

Kristin Starnes Gray

Litigation Value: Rampant unlawful discrimination and harassment = more zeros than I’ve seen in a long time; instructing employees to fire all the “cripples” and the “fatties” = an expensive lesson for the employer to learn; finding out that a sequel is in the works = priceless.

To kick off our new blog, I thought I should choose some bosses whose shenanigans meet, if not exceed, the litigation value accumulated by the antics of the much loved fictional boss and source of inspiration for our previous blog, Michael Scott. With that in mind, it would be difficult to surpass the litigation value in the aptly named dark comedy film Horrible Bosses. Given that a sequel is now in the works, let us revisit one of my favorite 2011 films.

If you have seen the movie, you probably know that I could spend weeks blogging about this movie alone and the rampant employment issues, not to mention the potential criminal charges arising from the events in the film. I’ve decided to limit this blog entry to a particular employment discrimination issue that seems to be on the rise—sexual harassment against men in the workplace. Believe it or not, sexual harassment charges filed by men have doubled over the past two decades. Indeed, in 2011, 16.3 percent of all sexual harassment charges filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) were filed by men.

This serious issue is represented in a darkly humorous way in the film via Dr. Julia Harris (Jennifer Aniston) and her dental assistant, Dale Arbus (Charlie Day). Not only does Julia grope, lick, and make highly sexual comments to Dale on a regular basis, she even threatens to tell his fiancee that they had sex unless Dale agrees to actually have sex with her. In fact, Dale eventually learns that Julia sexually assaulted him and took photographs documenting the assault while he was under anesthesia during a dental procedure. Julia’s actions are enough to make this blogger even more nervous about those pesky dental appointments. When Dale complains to his friends about Julia’s conduct, they disregard his concerns and even seem to think Dale should be pleased with her attention.

Think that this is only a far-fetched plotline in a movie? Think again. Allegations of similarly egregious conduct have come up in employment lawsuits. In fact, plaintiffs in recent litigation have made allegations of female supervisors or coworkers making sexually suggestive remarks in the workplace, sending revealing photographs of themselves, engaging in inappropriate touching, and otherwise causing a sexually hostile work environment for the male plaintiffs. Some male plaintiffs have even alleged that when they complained about such treatment, their supervisors and other employees thought they should be happy to receive such attention or even made fun of them for not reciprocating the harassers’ advances.

The bottom line for employers: Harassment training is key, and all complaints (regardless of the sex of the complainer and the alleged harasser) should be taken seriously and handled appropriately. As for Dale, he manages to get the best of Julia, but you will have to watch the movie to find out how. A hint—please don’t try Dale’s methods at home.

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