Who Says You Can’t Learn from TV? 5 Employment Law Lessons Courtesy of TV's Rowdiest Restaurant Staff
I’ve written about Vanderpump Rules before; the reality TV show that follows a group of model/actor hopefuls who work together at the Sexy Unique Restaurant (SUR) in LA. In addition to being beautiful, the staff is also wildly unruly. This season’s shenanigans illustrate some excellent employment law lessons about workplace relationships, hostile work environments, discipline, termination and defamation.
Workplace relationships are the heart of Vanderpump Rules. At some point over the show’s five seasons, nearly every SURver has been in a relationship with at least one of their coworkers. It is the single largest source of drama (and subsequently, success) for the show.
In real life, allowing workplace relationships is generally a bad idea. They blur the lines of professionalism and can cause major distractions and productivity loss, not to mention potential sexual harassment or retaliation claims.
Employers should outline the prohibition in their employee handbooks and identify discipline for violating the policy. Most importantly, enforce the policy consistently across all levels of the business to prevent allegations of unfair treatment. Remember that the ultimate goal is to maintain a professional workplace free from reasons an employee may sue you.
Hostile Work Environments
The entire premise of Vanderpump Rules is based on a hostile work environment. This season, the hostess didn’t come to work for two months because she was incessantly accused by her coworkers of trading sexual favors for Range Rovers. She said that the negative work environment increased her anxiety and made it impossible for her to come to work.
As an employer, it’s important to know the difference between obnoxious and illegal behavior. It isn’t illegal to have coworkers who are difficult to work with. Harassment must be based on a person’s membership in a protected class and only becomes unlawful when they (1) have to endure it to remain employed, and when (2) it is so severe, that it would be intimidating, hostile, or offensive to a reasonable person.
Keep in mind also that sexual harassment is not limited solely to unwanted sexual contact. It is sexual comments, advances, jokes and other similar conduct as well. In other words, what may have become common employee interaction is still very much considered sexual harassment.
Employers can be liable if they knew or should have known of harassment and did nothing to stop or prevent it. To eliminate harassment and prevent employee lawsuits, develop a strong anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy, train your employees on appropriate workplace conduct, and discipline offenders quickly and consistently.
Discipline and Termination
The SUR discipline policy has absolutely zero consistency. The DJ got more chances than the waitress because his parents were friends with the owner. The DJ eventually got fired for being drunk at work, but the bartender, who admittedly steals from the restaurant, still works there.
Inconsistent discipline can be a significant catalyst for employee lawsuits. Termination has a funny way of making employees introspective - what may have been a justified termination suddenly becomes pretext for a wrongful one.
Employers should outline in the employee handbook exactly what type of conduct is prohibited and the discipline that will follow from a violation. Be specific. Ambiguous policies give employees more latitude to claim that they were fired for an illegal reason.
Enforce discipline policies consistently and make sure that your supervisors aren’t playing favorites. Every instance of misconduct and discipline should be documented, signed by the employee, and kept in a separate personnel file. Finally, make sure that the details are limited to those with a genuine need to know.
For five seasons of SURver exploits, we’ve only actually seen two SURvers terminated. The DJ was fired for being drunk at work, and the waitress was fired for screaming obscenities at her supervisor in the middle of the restaurant. They were justified, no-brainer terminations. But as typically happens when an employee is fired, the other employees (and here, the boss) gossiped about it.
Employers have to be careful that discussions of a messy termination do not become grounds for a defamation claim. Truth is an absolute defense to defamation, but any discussion should be limited to the facts and free from any inflammatory descriptions.
Employers face the biggest defamation risk when asked to provide an employee reference. Don’t say anything until you have the former employee’s written consent and remember that limiting disclosure minimizes your risk. Give your reference in writing and stick to verifiable and irrefutable statements like dates of employment, title and salary. If the circumstances surrounding the termination are subject to reasonable dispute, don’t discuss them. You are not required to give a reference, and your silence on the matter will speak volumes.