Hostile Work Environment – Lessons from Project Runway

Let’s do something fun today.

Today’s post will discuss 3 reasons why cliquish work environments cost businesses money using last week’s episode of Project Runway appropriately titled “Can’t We All Get Along” as a practical example.

The 3 reasons are:

1. Drop in Productivity – Employees who are excluded from the group at large or not considered part of the “in-crowd” at work generally dread coming to work, are less likely to contribute to the company, and the presence of cliques divides the company into groups that usually don’t work well together. This causes a drop in productivity and the company to miss out on some great ideas that excluded employees may have shared otherwise.

2. Individual stress to employees – The cost here is two pronged:

a. Employees who are excluded at work generally suffer from stress-related issues such as headaches, hypertension, and other physical manifestations of stress (real or imagined) that lead them to call in sick. Which circles back to the drop in productivity discussed above.

b. Should the cliquish work environment rise to one that is hostile and discriminatory and the employee sues (see #3) the stress and stress-induced physical ailments translate into $$$ for which the employee would seek compensation.

3. Hostile work environment lawsuit – we already know how expensive it is to defend a lawsuit, even if you win.

What constitutes a hostile work environment in California?

To succeed in a hostile work environment harassment claim in California, an employee must prove:

• he or she was subject to unwanted harassing conduct because he or she is part of a protected status (e.g., race, gender, or age),

• the conduct is severe or pervasive, and

• a supervisor was the harassing party or knew or should have known of the conduct and take failed to take immediate and appropriate corrective action.

Case study: Episode 7 of this season’s Project Runway.

Here’s the background for those of you who have better things to do don’t watch the show. The remaining 10 contestants were divided into two groups of 5, the oldest contestant, Bert, was the last one picked (this is not the first time). By the time the teams were formed, fans of the show already knew which team would win the challenge, which was for each team to create a cohesive collection and produce a fashion show.

Let’s take a look at how each team worked:

Team Chaos

(click here to see video)


Team Nuts and Bolts

(click here for video)

It’s pretty obvious which team won.  Now if you are an employer you could easily see how this level of dissonance among your employees would negatively impact the quality of your products and your employees’ morale.

If you are an employee in Bert’s position (but without the incentive to win the competition) this type of work environment would be extremely stressful, might cause you to suffer anxiety, and retreat from your work and teammates.  If you believe that you are being berated, called out, or excluded because of your age, sex, or race, you may consider filing a lawsuit.

PRACTICAL TIPS:  Employers, the law does not require that you actually know that certain employees are being harassed in the workplace but that you merely “should have known.”  Thus, it is in your best interest to periodically gauge the pulse of your organization and identify difficult employees.  It is also advisable to have a written policy on what constitutes harassment and outline the complaint and investigative process.  Lastly, investigate complaints immediately and follow your own procedures.

Employees, communication is key.  Address issues with coworkers directly, if that doesn’t work or you are uncomfortable, take it to your supervisor and follow your organization’s complaint procedure.  I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, document your communications.





In: Employment Law

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