Unexpected Lessons from Lizzo

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It takes a lot of vigilance to be a progressive and inclusive founder. You’ve got to walk the walk at all times — who comes into your company, how they treat others, what policies you put in place.

Last week, we learned that Lizzo — body positive, size inclusive, LGBTQ+ champion — is being sued by three former employees for wage theft and harassment. 

A court does not care that you’re a first-time CEO or a small company, or had the best of intentions. None of those defenses are valid for the EEOC and labor law violations alleged in this suit. 

While we can’t yet know the veracity of these specific claims, this seems like a good nudge to refresh on some things about being CEO / owner:

At all times, you are a supervisor as well as the owner of the company. Yes, Lizzo is a performer and her brand is sex positivity. She’s also an employer and managing supervisor. As an employer, it’s not a great choice to mandate your team join you at a sex club, even while in Amsterdam. 

Religion cuts both ways. You are obligated to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs, including those of non-believers. Neither you nor your employees can impose religious beliefs on others. The EEOC just settled a case in favor of atheist employees who were forced to attend and participate in prayer meetings at a North Carolina home repair company. 

Shut up about appearance. Particularly if you’re “just trying to be nice.” Unless it clearly violates your WRITTEN AND ACKNOWLEDGED hygiene, uniform, or dress policies, withhold your commentary on anyone’s clothing, hairstyle, weight, contents of underwear, or other aspects of their physical being. Your employees should do the same. If it feels risky to go without a written policy, prioritize writing one. 

You are responsible for the conduct of your employees and representatives. All of them. Everything above is within the general category of “harassment.” We of a certain age associate harassment with Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton, but harassment spans more workplaces classes than just sex. 

You, your employees, and your company representatives are not allowed to harass other employees, clients, customers, prospects, consultants, vendors, rideshare drivers, conference attendees, yadda yadda. If it happens when someone is working on behalf of your company, it’s your responsibility.

Harassment training, while not a cure-all, provides evidence that your teams have been advised and trained on your workplace standards. The requirement is generally two hours for managers annually, one hour for non-managers bi-annually, and promotions or new hires within six months. You may require more training at your discretion.

We use EasyLlama with our clients. Their online harassment training costs about $15 per person, meets requirements in all US states, and covers topics like deadnaming and microaggressions. (Heads up, this an affiliate link. If you click and purchase, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. We only recommend tools we’ve vetted and trust.)

If you feel the potential for your team to be harassed is beyond what you can reasonably control, consider Directors & Officers (D&O) insurance. D&O includes legal defense and settlement funds for harassment claims against company owners and officers. 

Write clear employment agreements with detailed compensation. Several states require wage and hour statements for all hires, even salaried employees. Minimally, define whether the role is full- or part-time, eligible for overtime, where it’s located, who it reports to, frequency of pay, and base compensation. 

Consult an attorney about restrictions that you can put on someone’s right to work elsewhere, especially if they are part-time. The dancers allege that they were 50% retained but forbidden from taking on other dance jobs.

Resist the urge to defend yourself. It’s so tempting to go on social media, as Lizzo did, because you feel like someone is making you look bad. Or to get into an argument with your employee about what did or didn’t happen. 

Resist this urge. 

Most employment lawsuits are about feelings. Negating someone’s hurt feelings by saying something did not happen will land you in lawyerville. A first step is to manage screw-ups and exits with grace, humanity, and direct and clear communications. If you are a conflict avoider, this book is a good resource on facing challenging conversations.

And know your limits. If the situation feels beyond what you can handle, consult an employment attorney, general counsel, or crisis communications manager. You will not regret paying $500 – $1,000 for an hour of professional guidance to avoid a $10,000 settlement bump and 10-20 hours of attorneys fees. Or, in this case, a public bonfire of everything you stand for.Review the lawsuit and Lizzo’s comments from NBC News or the Washington Post.

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