Employee Management Lessons From The Runway

by Davis Brown Law Firm

Who knew you could pick up employee management lessons from the TV show Project Runway?  The long running reality show, which pits multiple clothing designers against each other in a series of increasingly difficult design challenges, has run for 16 seasons. Heidi Klum, the host, lets everyone know on every episode, “In fashion, one day you are in and the next you are out!”

Project Runway is always full of drama and complex interpersonal interactions common to the reality show genre.  The current season has been particularly fraught: breakdowns, throw-downs, and many, many, tears, along with twin competing sisters, Shawn and Claire, and a cheating scandal involving Claire.  There have also been several very illuminating moments in terms of employee management.

English, por favor

A couple of the contestants, designers Margarita and Michael, really do not like the twins, Shawn and Claire.  In a recent episode, there was a strong feeling that Claire, the only twin left after an emotional elimination of Shawn the week before, was somehow cheating by copying other designers, including Margarita. 

Margarita and Michael, in the workroom, proceeded to trash talk Claire, in hushed tones and in Spanish.  The fact that the conversation was in Spanish, conveniently subtitled by the Project Runway producers, that creates the workplace issue.

Employers frequently experience complaints from employees that those in the workplace who speak a language other than English are insulting or otherwise making fun of the English-only speakers. The aggrieved employees simply can’t prove it because they don’t speak the language in question, although body language, in many employment instances, appears to be universal.

Sometimes when these complaints are frequent enough, or involve potential issues of sexual harassment, inappropriate defamatory language or racial epithets, employers are very tempted to enact an English-only rule in the workplace. 

However, English-only rules carry various burdens and possible liability.  There is always the potential that the employer will be determined to have discriminated against its employees on the basis of ethnic origin.  If you choose to utilize English only, as an employer you need to carefully think through the issues relating to this matter. 

A familiarity with English in order to understand instructions, understand safety training or an ability to communicate with other employees and customers can be a very appropriate employment requirement.  Employers who have highly safety sensitivity functions have a high impetus for encouraging common language usage.  Employees may need to be able to communicate with each other rapidly in order to avoid things like a chemical spill or injury to a patient in a healthcare setting. 

However, English only, particularly in breakrooms, lunchrooms, and on “your own time” can create a real sense of disenfranchisement in employees who do not speak English as a first language, could alienate certain customers who speak Spanish or other languages, and can also lead to a more underground methodology by employees basically picking on each other.

English only does not address the underlying behavioral or policy issue that created the concern in the first instance. There are certainly other alternatives to dealing with the potential of inappropriate language or statements including placing a supervisor who speaks the language in the breakroom for a period of time, discussing the issues directly and specifically with the employees, providing additional training and having supervisors directly call out the behavior and stop it if, and when, it occurs.

Hurt feelings obscure the facts

On Project Runway, there were multiple hurt feelings about who copied who and which outfit was better, with one judge being reduced to asking a contestant who was having something of a hissy fit, “Well are you a contestant, or are you a Judge?” But after the hurt feelings and creative differences had spun on and on, a kernel of what an employer needs to consider came forward.  There was an allegation that Claire, who had been the subject of the creative debate, was cheating by utilizing a tape measure to measure pre-made clothes in her apartment.  This is all very Project Runway, but her conduct was a direct violation 

What is interesting is the contestants knew that this had been occurring for a significant period of time, but it took them a long period of venting to ever get to something that was actually pertinent to how the contest was run.

This occurs frequently with employees when they are reporting concerns or issues that relate to compliance.  Employees start with concerns about how someone acts, behaves, looks at them, or doesn’t say hello in the morning, before ever getting to the issues of things like absenteeism or a HIPAA violation due to an inappropriate social media post.  In dealing with employees who bring concerns to your attention, employers need to focus on asking the next question and on specificity of reporting.  An important question is a simple one:  do you have any other concerns?

As the show’s host Tim Gunn indicated when listening to the concerns of the designers, you are certainly entitled to your opinion - but are there any other concerns? Employers sometimes fear asking “what else” for fear of what might crawl out from under a rock.  But it is better to see it in the light of day than have it sneak up on you in true horror movie fashion and ambush you in a darkened room.  Do you have any other concerns?  Are there any other issues? Who else would you like us to talk to about this matter? These are all critical questions to help you wade through the emotion to the facts.

Compassion fatigue

Once the designer had been trashed, disqualified and tossed off Project Runway, all of a sudden, the people who had willingly thrown her under the bus started to talk about how concerned they were, how they never meant for this to happen, how they didn’t realize she would get thrown out of the competition, and a wide array of other comments which can only be attributed to guilt. 

When reporting policy breaches or raising particular issues, employees frequently start with, “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble but...”  However, the sheer fact that they are bringing the issue to your attention indicates that it is not ok, regardless of how they pretty-up the concerns. 

Issues always need to be assessed, then addressed, regardless of whether or not the employee doesn’t want to get anyone into trouble.  Employers continue to have liability and once you know about the problem, your liability risk increases. The employer is required to take appropriate, prompt and remedial action, no excuses.

This kind of reporting remorse also crops up when employees agree to take on additional tasks, overtime, and similar items in order to “help out” another employee who may need time off or some form of workplace accommodation. Particularly with informal accommodation requests, compassion fatigue can frequently develop, as employees find themselves late to their own family gatherings or working more overtime than they are comfortable with. Once the compassion fatigue sets in and they begin to complain, they want relief but they don’t want it to be their action which caused employee discipline.  The proverbial have your cake but it can’t have any calories issue.

Compassion fatigue plus guilt can create a toxic process and lead to the employee blaming you for taking the action. Employers need to assess any policies as a whole and be consistent with alleged employee concerns. It should be clear that it is not the responsibility of the employee to assess discipline but it is his/her responsibility to report concerns. 

Employers should also take into consideration the fact that employees frequently do not come forward at the first sign of a problem. In Project Runway, they apparently waited several weeks before reporting Claire’s cheating. Many employees wait until the problem has progressed beyond resolution before they raise an issue with you.

As an employer, you should encourage prompt, accurate, and specific reporting of concerns in order to limit this problem. But, you need to be wary of setting time limits for reporting as such can, as the EEOC has stated, have a chilling effect on employee reporting.  Don’t put barriers in the way of employees who want to report a concern to you.  Make that process as easy as possible with multiple points where employees can report, and encourage employee interaction, and discussion.

Take notes on how to be a manager from Tim Gunn

Tim Gunn, Project Runway’s host, mentor, coach, conscience, and all around snappy dresser, is the first to deal with the contestants storming off the stage and the temper tantrums that arise.  Tim is always clear, precise, focused, consistent, and although sympathetic, never allows himself to be drawn in to the manipulations of the contestants.  In other words, the perfect manager. 

While contestants are spouting off about unfairness and creative differences, Tim continues to tell them that while that is their opinion, it is not their judgment call to make.  Eventually, this calm process elicits the issue which raises Tim’s concern, the cheating comes out.  Tim, in grand style, announces that all the creative differences are a non-issue, but the cheating is in fact something the show needs to review.  He listens, asks questions, and then tells them a review will occur and he will get back to them.

The show then takes prompt, effective and focused investigatory action with Tim questioning Claire and specifically asking her if she engaged in the questionable behavior.  Claire, to her credit, owns up, she loses her prize for that episode, and is required to leave the competition. Tim’s body language clearly indicates that he is distressed and that he is deeply disappointed in the conduct of Claire and some of the other contestants, but he never appears to allow that to cloud his focus. Tim’s voice carries weight after multiple seasons of being fair, neutral, and supportive with all contestants - a tough act to balance.  When he gets to the bottom of the issues, there is no second guessing, misplaced sympathy, or waffling. 

The dismissal of a contestant from the show is essentially a termination. Tim Gunn has perfected the skill.  For every reality show and in employment:

  • There are clear and specific rules which the contestants and employees know. 
  • The contestants and employees are provided training and the ability to ask questions about the rules
  • When an issue is brought to the shows attention it is investigated and assessed
  • The person accused of the misconduct is given the opportunity, in clear and specific language, not buried in euphemisms, to make his/her statement regarding the conduct.
  • A decision is then made, communicated promptly, and appropriately.
  • Finally, other people involved in the complaint are informed of the actions that are taken and how the complaint was resolved.

While employers frequently want to say, “we don’t discuss personnel matters,” in a world of Twitter, Facebook, and other instantaneous social media gossip, refusing to provide any information sometimes frequently will do more harm than good.  A focused message with clear communication can frequently assist the employer in managing any internal concerns or upheaval.

Project Runway is well lit, well filmed, and edited to highlight the drama, but every HR person knows this stuff happens pretty much every day, without editing.  Prompt, fair, and focused action gets you to the end of the episode and potentially a happy ending.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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