Vulgar music at work ‘is’ discrimination; Starbucks in row over Pride decorations

In this week's HR news round-up: a judge has ruled vulgar work music is discriminatory. Meanwhile, Starbucks stands accused of banning staff from putting up Pride decorations:

Article main image
Jun 16, 2023

Playing explicit music at work ‘is’ discrimination, rules court

Vulgar music played at work may now be considered a form of sexual discrimination, after a federal appeals court sided with former employees at S&S Activewear, who argued “sexually graphic” and “violently misogynistic” lyrics fostered a hostile and abusive work environment. The claimants, argued the music played “denigrated women” and graphically detailed extreme violence against them. One of the songs in question included an Eminem single about a pregnant woman being put into a car trunk and “driven into water to be drowned.” S&S had argued that the playing music motivated staff, but the employees who filed the lawsuit said it was impossible to avoid hearing the music – which was played over large commercial speakers throughout the 700,000 square-foot warehouse. A lower court initially dismissed the claim, but under the appeal Judge Mary Margaret McKeown wrote: Harassment, whether aural or visual, need not be directly targeted at a particular plaintiff in order to pollute a workplace and give rise to a Title VII claim.”

Starbucks in row over Pride decorations

Coffee chain, Starbucks, has been accused of banning employees from putting up Pride decorations. June, which is Pride Month, is widely celebrated by corporations, but there has been growing backlash from conservative activists and consumers around businesses showing expressions of support for LGBTQ+ Americans. The Starbucks dispute has reportedly erupted after a petition on, a labor organizing website, was launched in the beginning of June that claimed Starbucks managers have told workers they cannot put up Pride decorations this year. In the petition, a Starbucks worker said: “I was told that they had just implemented a new no-decorations policy. And I was like, ‘Right before Pride?’ That’s really suspicious and kind of weird. I was pretty sure it wasn’t just our store, because our store managers are very supportive of LGBT stuff, most of our employees are LGBT community members, and I was told that it was the regional manager’s decision.” Since then, Starbucks Workers United, the union representing Starbucks workers at more than 300 locations in the US, posted a thread on Twitter claiming workers in at least 21 states, including at unionized stores, have reported their store management banning Pride decorations. Starbucks has denied any corporate policy changes, saying it is not aware of any store that has banned decorations related to Pride month. It said it is waiting to hear from the regional manager mentioned in the petition.

Labor board ruling paves way for gig workers to unionize

Gig workers have had their case to be treated as ‘employees’ rather than ‘contractors’ a boost, after the National Labor Relations Board handed them a potential path to join unions. The board threw out the Trump administration standard of classifying workers, which had said workers who operate their own businesses should not be able to join unions. Instead, the agency reverted back to an Obama-era test that considers a broader array of factors such as the amount of control companies exercise over workers and the degree to which workers depend on a single company to make a living. The ruling follows a case involving a union campaign by makeup artists for the Atlanta Opera. The board said the workers were the opera’s employees and could now hold an election over whether to join a union. The US Department of Labor is expected to soon finalize a proposed rule opposed by business groups that would narrow the circumstances in which workers qualify as independent contractors under federal wage laws.

Employees want networks not promotions

Strong networks are more important than promotions when it comes to keeping marginalized groups and women engaged in the workplace. This is according to analysis of 3,362 employee records by Seramount. The data revealed that staff who do not feel included are nearly twice as likely to want to leave within the next three years (36% versus 19%). It also found that when employees do not believe someone at their organization is working to expand their visibility or support their career advancement, they report twice at much desire to leave (34% versus 17%). Commenting on the data Dr. Laura Sherbin, MD, Seramount, said: “Today’s employees are deeply disengaged from their work. Companies need to focus on facilitating strong peer-to-peer and peer-to-manager relationships, especially for underrepresented employees. The research is clear: interpersonal connections are key to retaining employees.” The research also revealed that 43% of white employees who want to advance reported having a strong network, compared to 24% of employees from historically marginalized groups.

Pay rises on the cards for ‘exceptional’ Arkansas executive branch staff

Arkansas Governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, has rubber stamped plans to give “exceptional” executive branch employees merit rises. The rises – which will go to around 5,750 of the state’s 22,00 executive branch employees – will cost an estimated $16.3 million, but she defended the move, saying staff were making “bold, transformational changes” to state government and should be rewarded accordingly. In supporting the rises, she said: “Our state has made fiscally responsible decisions to keep revenues and forecasts strong, allowing us to invest strategically in rewarding our highest-performing employees while returning savings to the taxpayer. Therefore, I have authorized a pay increase for exceptional employees across our state agencies.” The pay rises will be effective from July 9th, for the top two performing category of employees. For those with more than a year’s service, and who are deemed to be “highly effective,” a rise of 4.5% will be given. Those determined to be “role models” will receive a 5% rise. The average pay of an executive branch employee is currently $53,086 a year. Of the five performance review categories, the largest (14,944) are in the middle “solid performers” category. Below that are those who “need improvement” and are “unacceptable.”

New Twitter CEO’s first memo to staff: work hard!

The highly anticipated first memo to staff by new Twitter CEO, Linda Yaccarino was sent this week – but many employees could have been forgiven for thinking it was from Elon Musk himself. Continuing in his famously hard-working vein, she said: “When you start by wrapping your arms around this powerful vision, literally everything is possible. You have to genuinely believe – and work hard for that belief.” Musk famously used to sleep at Twitter HQ, and often demanded staff ought to be doing the same – with subsequent posts by disgruntled staff about the excessive hours they were expected to work. However, there was also a more conciliatory tone in Yaccarino’s first memo too. It read: “It’s rare to have the chance to put a new future into the hands of every person, partner, and creator on the planet. That’s exactly why I’m here – with all of YOU.” Yaccarino is a longtime advertising executive, having previously led global ad sales for NBCUniversal. Her task will be to recover the morale of staff, which has plummeted in recent months.

Company fires all managers – and its staff are much happier

The story of virtual-assistant company, Time Etc, sacking its managers and hiring coaches instead, has been doing the rounds this week – and it’s not difficult to see why. When new hires to the company said they wanted goal-setting, feedback, personal and professional development opportunities, and autonomy, the decision to hire actual coaches was almost taken for them. Not long afterwards, it decided to replace managers with coaches, who were each responsible for a team of six employees. The coaches have one primary focus, to help employees maximize productivity and reach their full potential. The story first appeared in Fortune magazine, and according to its report, workers became 20% more productive, and they were much happier to boot. Said Barnaby Lashbrooke, CEO, Time Etc: “Coaching calls for a different set of skills than traditional management, but overall, the gains have been so significant that there’s no going back for us.” He added: “Turning the tide of dwindling employee engagement is going to need bold action. I believe employers who clearly signal they trust their employees, are invested in their development, and are committed to supporting them as they grow, are going to see bigger returns.”