What Can the Lizzo Lawsuit Teach Us about Our Workplaces?

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This post is co-authored by paralegal Allison Wolcott, who explains the allegations against Lizzo in the first half of the post, and employment attorney Christina Hynes Mesco, who defines harassment and explores best practices for employees and employers.

The thing about our cultural heroes--be they athletes, performers, novelists, artists, or anything else--is that they’re human. Whenever they are accused of bad behavior, we collectively sigh and hang our heads, conscious once again that no one is free from human frailty. Former employees of music superstar Lizzo recently claimed in a lawsuit that the star subjected them to various abuses, including sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. Whatever the outcome of the suit, it is a good reminder that even our icons have to follow basic employment laws and are called to form a healthy workplace culture for their workers.

Paralegal Allison Wolcott

Defendant Lizzo: The Allegations

Former employees of body positivity icon Lizzo (aka Melissa Viviane Jefferson) filed a lawsuit on August 1, 2023 against Lizzo, her production company Big Grrrl Big Touring Inc., and her dance team captain Shirlene Quigley in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Claims by the three former dancers, Arianna Davis, Crystal Williams, and Noelle Rodriguez, include sexual harassment, creation of a hostile work environment, false imprisonment, and interference with prospective economic advantage (though not every claim was brought against all defendants).

Between 2021 and 2023, the dancers claim they were shamed about weight gain and forced to participate in a grueling 12-hour re-audition for their jobs (during which one dancer soiled herself for fear of stopping to use the restroom), coerced into touching a nude performer in an Amsterdam club, targeted with unwelcome lewd comments about sex acts, and subjected to proselytizing about conservative Christian religious beliefs on sex. While Davis and Williams were fired, Rodriguez resigned in protest over the treatment of her colleagues.

Blurred Lines in Arts Employment

Lizzo’s response to the allegations points to how people who work in the arts have to navigate regularly the murky interplay of the personal and professional. People make art in order to express themselves, and artists often hire other creatives to collaborate on their vision. When artists become successful enough to employ other people in their art-making, however, the artists’ self-expression may begin to infringe upon their employees’ rights, and alignment over a shared creative vision shouldn’t presume alignment on deeply personal choices regarding sex and religion.

As a former ballet dancer and a singer in local tribute bands, I know the kind of rotten treatment that performing artists are expected to put up with by their supervisors for the privilege of appearing onstage, often for low pay that nowhere near reflects the years of training that went into one’s performance. It’s rare to find a supervisor in the arts who doesn’t take for granted the wealth of disposable talent available to them. So, it’s a huge bummer to hear allegations against someone like Lizzo, who publicly stands for so many positive things in a world that often feels overly critical of women.

As we well know from the stage that is the courtroom, no employment environment--not even one spearheaded by talented artists professing positivity and inclusivity--is immune to bad workplace behaviors.

So what should employers in Illinois do to avoid this kind of situation, whether they are in the performing arts or not? And what rights should employees, including performing artists, be aware of?

Employment attorney Christina Hynes Mesco

What Is Harassment?

Harassment in the workplace occurs when a supervisor, a co-worker, or even a non-employee subjects a worker to unwelcome conduct due to a protected characteristic such as race, religion, sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, or pregnancy), or disability, among other areas protected under state, federal, and local law.

Harassment can become unlawful when enduring it becomes a condition of continued employment. Harassment is also unlawful when conduct is extremely severe (e.g., a single physical assault) or so pervasive (ongoing and continuous behavior) that it creates an environment which most reasonable people would consider abusive or intimidating, thus creating a hostile work environment.

Common examples of harassment include unwelcome sexual advances and requests for or unwelcome sexual contact. Other behaviors, such as unwelcome physical contact, offensive jokes or images, use of slurs or epithets, or mockery and insults can constitute harassment that transforms a workplace into a hostile environment when related to a protected characteristic. It’s important to note that annoying someone, or petty slights among workers, or even isolated incidents (unless extremely serious) will generally not rise to the level of harassing behaviors creating a hostile work environment under the law.

Harassment can occur in the physical or virtual workplace and outside of it (such as among co-workers at a happy hour). Notably, a complainant may not always be the person harassed, but can be anyone in the workplace affected by the offensive conduct given how traumatic it can be to witness certain behaviors.

What Should an Employee Do If They Are Harassed at Work?

  • Report the behavior. First and most importantly, employees must notify their employers of the harassment, either via HR or a manager. An employee handbook should include the employer’s policy regarding harassment and designate how to make a report. Reporting harassment is extremely important: the report will trigger an employer’s responsibility to correct the behavior and protect workers from further harassment. Employees who fail to report harassment may lose their rights under the law.
  • Notify the harasser that the conduct is unwelcome. If an employee feels that it is safe to do so, an employee can advise the harasser that the conduct is inappropriate and ask that it be stopped. Sometimes this alone can bring an end to the harassment.
  • Keep notes. Especially when behaviors continue despite reporting them to the employer, employees should keep notes describing the harassing behaviors, the dates/times on which they occur, and names of any person who witnessed the behavior. This information will be helpful in the event you are required to make a report to a fair employment practices agency (FEPA), such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which will investigate the conduct.
  • Be mindful of retaliation. Those who complain at work are sometimes subjected to negative behaviors – such as receiving warnings, being placed on PIPs, and even termination – because of their report. It is not legal for an employer to punish, harass, or otherwise mistreat an employee who makes a report of harassment or a hostile work environment. Be sure to report any misconduct that occurs after your initial complaint.
  • Seek advice from an attorney and consider filing a complaint. Sometimes employers refuse to correct harassing behaviors or even choose to retaliate against a complaining worker. In these cases, an employee should seek legal counsel from an attorney to determine the next best steps, which may include further complaints, resignation, or filing a charge with a federal, state, or local FEPA. Employees can also directly file with certain FEPAs, without the need for legal counsel.

In my years of litigating employment-related claims on behalf of employees, I have learned that the worst thing an employee can do in these situations is to ignore the behaviors if they are truly impacting the employee’s well-being. No job is worth the physical or mental trauma (anxiety, depression, PTSD, physical illness) that can be caused by prolonged exposure to an abusive workplace.

How Should an Employer Respond to Workplace Harassment?

  • Create and enforce an anti-harassment policy. The best antidote to avoid fostering a hostile work environment is to create an anti-harassment policy that is clearly and frequently communicated to all workers, including managers. The policy should inform employees of how and to whom workplace harassment and discrimination must be reported. In some cases, having a policy will help provide a defense to claims of a hostile work environment by an employee. Even more important, employers must enforce such policies at all times and do so equitably: those who violate an employer’s policies related to harassment and discrimination must be disciplined or terminated. Employers should strive to create a culture where employees feel empowered to speak up if something is amiss and confident that their employer will respond appropriately.
  • Provide quality harassment prevention training to your employees. An employer’s policies are only worthwhile if its workers understand how the policies work. This is especially true for managers. What behaviors constitute harassment or discrimination in the workplace? How should employees respond when they witness such behaviors? What should managers do when they receive a report of harassment? What constitutes a complaint of harassment? Yearly training that provides an opportunity for workers to ask questions about policies and provides concrete instruction in identifying, preventing, and responding to harassment and discrimination in the workplace is key to avoiding it altogether.
  • Promptly investigate reports of harassment and provide corrective action. Upon receipt of a complaint of harassment from a worker, employers must take action to investigate the alleged behavior. This may be a simple process requiring a few discussions with employees or a review of email correspondence. Investigations can also be sprawling and implicate numerous persons for conduct spanning years. Based upon the results of the investigation, the employer must take action to correct the misconduct and protect the complaining employee from further harassment or discrimination. Employers that fail to take action in response to reports of workplace misconduct may be held legally liable.

In my years of drafting employer policies, providing workplace trainings, and conducting workplace investigations, the best advice I can offer to an employer seeking to avoid the kind of suit Lizzo is now facing is to focus, intentionally and diligently, on cultivating a positive workplace culture. The healthiest cultures are kind and inclusive, and provide workers the tools necessary to address and resolve the tensions that invariably arise among co-workers.

Providing time and space for workers to honestly communicate with management regarding the work environment and then listening to what the workers have to say can help avoid unresolved issues (that an employer may not even know exist) from exploding into nasty, public, and expensive years-long litigation.

Lizzo’s lyrics have taught us about self-acceptance. Now let’s learn some lessons from the Lizzo lawsuit. Primarily, we should remember that workplaces come in all shapes and sizes, that workers’ rights matter even in non-traditional workplaces, and that ultimately we need to hold one another accountable--including to our own shared values in the workplace.