When Hollywood Offspring Land Industry Internships: “There’s a Pay-It-Forward Expectation”

When Hollywood Offspring Land Industry Internships: “There’s a Pay-It-Forward Expectation”

By: Bryn Elise Sandberg
The Hollywood Reporter
December 20, 2017

Hollywood felt pretty self-satisfied when Malia Obama famously interned on the set of HBO’s Girls in summer 2015 and then later at The Weinstein Co. (pre-Harvey scandal, of course). But generally, when powerful kids leverage their family name to get a foot in the door, the company tries to keep it quiet, as when Vice President Mike Pence’s daughter was welcomed in UTA’s agent trainee program this fall (she since has been promoted to full-time assistant).

Meanwhile, Tom Hanks’ youngest son, Truman Hanks, a student at Stanford, has secured a coveted internship at Bad Robot the past two summers, where he’s served as a production assistant on various J.J. Abrams film shoots. The twin daughters of NBC Entertainment’s Jennifer Salke and Fox 21 Television Studios’ Bert Salke interned at WME this summer; Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden’s 17-year-old daughter spent the past two summers interning for Ryan Murphy and then 3 Arts manager Oly Obst; and former NBC Broadcasting chairman Ted Harbert’s daughter worked on the desk of Lionsgate TV Group president Sandra Stern. And in some cases, the road to a job can be as short as the family breakfast table. David Kohan’s daughter and Max Mutchnick’s niece are production assistants on the new season of their show Will & Grace.

There’s no law that prevents you (or your boss) from hiring a favorite son or niece. That’s true for any private entity (unlike the public sector). So it’s up to the company. “There are plenty of companies, Donald Trump’s among them, that do not have any sort of nepotism policies,” says employment attorney Ann Fromholz. “And some appear to make nepotism a practice.”

Still, aware of the optics and pitfalls, many Hollywood entities engage someone like Fromholz to address nepotism in their corporate guidelines. “I don’t necessarily recommend a total prohibition,” she says. “Most companies are sizable enough that you can separate the people who are related to each other.”

Still, those running Hollywood’s most coveted internship programs insist the practice of industry veterans opening doors for powerful progeny is overstated. “Look, I’m not going to tell you that there’s never a situation where there’s somebody important that we do business with where we’re not going to squint hard at the résumé to let their kid in,” says an individual with one agency program, adding that an estimated 20 percent of applicants come from showbiz families. “But most of the time, these candidates are very well-qualified.”

Take Ellie Monahan, the 26-year-old daughter of Katie Couric. She interned for HBO for four months during the summer of 2012 while still at Yale. Sources say she worked harder than everyone else at the cable network and is remembered as one of best interns the program has ever had. Monahan has since lined her résumé with more film and TV gigs: She went on to study screenwriting at AFI, then worked with Shawn Ryan on The Get Down before landing her current job as a writers’ assistant on Amazon’s new superhero drama The Boys. She’s hardly anyone’s idea of a favor hire.

“There’s something of a pay-it-forward expectation,” says a former staffer at Vanity Fair, where many Hollywood kids have spent a New York summer, including Carson Meyer (daughter of Ron), Jessica Springsteen (daughter of Bruce) and Angelica Zollo (daughter of Barbara Broccoli). “If I help your kid, maybe you’ll help me or my kid down the road. If the person ends up being a good, smart, hard-working intern without attitude, that’s just a total bonus.”

Let’s Talk About Sex

Let’s Talk About Sex

“Yo, I don’t think we should talk about this
(Come on, why not?)
People might misunderstand what we’re tryin’ to say, you know?
(No, but that’s a part of life)”
– Salt-n-Pepa

The rash of sexual harassment accusations and related resignations and firings of high profile people (and, we can presume, lower profile people) raises yet again the question of when and whether people can talk about sex or engage in other raunchy talk in the workplace.

Should you talk about sex in the workplace? Of course!*

If you work for a company that sells sex, go right ahead and talk about sex in the workplace. Provided, of course, that you are talking about your company’s business, or its products, or otherwise doing something that’s required by your job.

Some years ago, I did work for a men’s magazine that featured articles and photographs that were sexually charged. (Sex sells, after all.) The photo editor told me, “I yell down the hall, ‘I need more boobs!'” She wanted to know if that was ok, or if she was engaging in sexual harassment.

I told her that, if she was saying she needed more cleavage in the photos, this was ok. If, however, she was talking about herself or something personal, it was not.

Here in Los Angeles, there is a company (actually there are a few) that produces print and video featuring naked women. The walls of the company’s office are adorned with photos from the magazines. The magazines themselves are in the lobby waiting area and in employees’ offices. Does the presence of that many pictures of nude women create a unlawfully hostile work environment? My answer to that question is no. The photos on the walls and the magazines on tables and desks are the company’s product. Conversations about the photos and magazines that are limited to work topics also would be ok. But the moment that an employee starts to talk about their personal sexual attraction to one of the models, or what they might hope to do with that model, the conversation crosses the line to one the creates an unlawful hostile environment based on sex.

The California Supreme Court decided this issue eleven years ago, in Lyle v. Warner Brothers Television Prods. Lyle was a writers’ assistant on the show “Friends.” The Court held that, the “Friends” writers’ room was a workplace where writers were paid to create adult-themed sexual humor and jokes. The court characterized the “Friends” writers’ room as a “creative workplace focused on generating scripts for an adult-oriented comedy show featuring sexual themes.” Therefore, the Court held that sexual talk in the context of brainstorming about and writing scripts — i.e., in the work done in the writers’ room — did not amount to unlawful sexual harassment.

So, if you write for a show that has sexual themes, or if you work for a magazine that features naked women (or men), if you work on the set of a movie with sexual content, go ahead and talk about sex if, and only, if you are talking about it in the context of your job.

But if you work at a bank, or a law firm**, or an energy company, or a hospital, or a restaurant (and so on and so on), there probably is not a situation where you can talk about sex without risking creating an unlawfully hostile environment.

*This blog is for entertainment purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice or offering a legal conclusion.
**Employment lawyers and HR people get to talk about sex every day. So, if you have an overwhelming desire to talk about sex, those are the careers for you.

The Fish Stinks From the Head

The Fish Stinks From the Head

A number of years ago, I attended the holiday party of the firm where I worked at the time. The firm’s management committee met in Los Angeles that week, so all of the members of the executive committee attended the holiday party. Talk about awkward.

It was Friday night and I was tired from a long week of working on various harassment and discrimination lawsuits. I decided to leave the party early and said goodbye to the friends and colleagues around me. In that group was a member of the executive committee, who was from another office and whom I had never met before. He asked for a ride back to his hotel. I said, “Sure”, because his hotel was on my way back to the freeway, and because it did not occur to me that he would do anything inappropriate. Our office did not have that kind of culture.

Apparently, his office did. Or at least he did. As I drove toward the hotel, I asked where the entrance was. He pointed to the parking lot and said, “Well, you can park there if you want to come up to my room.” I laughed. Was I nervous? Was I trying to play it off as a joke? I’m not sure. I know that I managed to convey that wasn’t going to happen. I dropped him at the entrance and got home without incident.

The next day, I went to talk to my best friend in the office. He had made partner earlier that year. I told him what happened and, without hesitation, he said, “You have to tell [the managing partner].” I told him I did not want to. He said that if I did not, he would.

So, later that day, I knocked on the door of the managing partner. “Can I talk to you?” I asked. I was incredibly nervous. I really did not want to tell him. But my sister once told me that, in difficult situations like this, you should just start talking and momentum will take over. She’s right.

I told the managing partner about the creepy member of the executive committee. His reaction surprised me, in the best possible way. The first word he said? “Shit.” And then he said, “The fish stinks from the head.” I knew what he meant: if there are bad actors at the top, it ruins the rest of the organization. He had worked so hard to make sure there was no such stink in our office. And he was dismayed that such a stink had affected one of his lawyers.

I don’t know what the firm did, but I know that I never had to interact with that executive committee member again. I also know that my complaint had no adverse impact on my career. I have every faith that the managing partner of our office put the fear of god into him and anyone else who might disrupt the harmony of our office.

Keeping a workplace free from harassment requires good policies, procedures, and training. But those things cannot alone create a safe and productive workplace. The leadership must be dedicated to creating, cultivating, and protecting a harassment-free workplace, and to taking prompt action when even the slightest hint of harassment occurs.

High Court Docket: Unions, Overtime

High Court Docket: Unions, Overtime

By: Carol Patton
This article was originally published by Human Resource Executive on December 6, 2017

The Supreme Court’s decisions on two upcoming employment-law cases could end up weakening organized labor and impacting overtime for some workers, legal experts say.

Legal experts say the Supreme Court’s upcoming decisions in two employment-law cases involve a pair of hot-button topics: labor unions and overtime.

The first case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, challenges the constitutionality of public employees being forced to pay union dues even if they don’t support or join unions. The other case, Encino Motorcars, LLC v Navarro, focuses on whether service advisors at auto dealerships are exempt from overtime.

The plaintiff in the first case, a public-sector worker, refused to join the union but was still required to pay 84 percent of full members’ dues, which excludes fees for the union’s political activities, says employment-law attorney Ann Fromholz, founder of The Frumholz Firm in Pasadena, Calif.

“Employees have the right to decide whether to join the union and can be required to pay a fee even if they elect not to be a member,” she says. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of the worker and against the union. This could be a big blow for public employee unions.”

This isn’t surprising considering that Justice Gorsuch, who filled Justice Scalia’s seat following his sudden death, is likely to support his predecessor’s conservative views.

If the high court rules in favor of workers, Fromholz says, union membership may dwindle, resulting in less dues and power to negotiate contracts. Such a decision could also create HR quagmires as well. For example, if a union negotiates worker benefits that would not have been otherwise offered, should nonunion members receive those same benefits? Likewise, would nonunion employees be required to pay a portion of their health insurance premiums while employers pay the entire premium for union workers?

“It’s hard to say [if this is fair] because employees do benefit from the work of unions,” says Fromholz. “If there are environments where the union is weak and doesn’t negotiate much beyond what the employee would get, it’s probably not overly fair to ask everyone to contribute.”

Other HR problems would involve worker protections, she says. For example, union employees can only be fired for cause and must receive progressive discipline before termination. However, nonunion employees at the same workplace would be employed at will and not guaranteed those same rights.

This sets the stage for possible instances of inequity, says Fromholz, and opens the door for employers to scale back benefits to ensure consistency between the two employee groups.

“Workers may be unhappy if those protections are stripped away,” she says, adding that benefits such as retirement, however, would remain intact. “That would be an issue HR would need to manage.”

Regarding the second employment-law case, Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, the U.S. Supreme Court in June rejected a 2011 final rule issued by the U.S. Department of Labor that stated that service advisors at auto dealerships are not exempt from overtime. This final rule contradicted DOL’s 1978 opinion letter, which concluded that service advisors (along with salesmen, partsmen or mechanics, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act) were exempt from overtime.
Initially, the district court dismissed this case on the grounds that service advisors were “functionally equivalent to salesmen, partsmen and mechanics,” says Lee Schreter, an attorney and co-chair of the national wage and hour practice at Littler Mendelson in Atlanta.

Since then, she says, the case has bounced between the Ninth Circuit, which deferred to the DOL’s latest interpretation and unanimously rejected the lower court’s decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, finding that the DOL’s explanation for departing from the interpretation it had followed for nearly 40 years was inadequate. The case was remanded back to the Ninth Circuit, which not only upheld its decision but also opposes previous rulings made by the Fourth and Fifth Circuits and Supreme Court of Montana. Due to the courts’ disagreements, the case is back in the hands of the Supreme Court.

Ironically, Schreter says, the DOL’s “flip-flopping” won’t help service advisors, because employers can still prevent them from working overtime, reduce their hourly rate to compensate for overtime expenses or put them on commission.
“No good comes from a federal agency having dramatic swings in its interpretation of the law,” says Schreter. “It becomes very hard to comply when you have dramatic swings from one administration to the next [and] makes it very difficult for employers and employees because you don’t have settled expectations.”

Robert Brock, an attorney at the law office of Lowell J. Kuvin in Miami, supports the Ninth Circuit’s opinion but believes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision will swing the other way. As, he says the Ninth Circuit’s persuasive argument is based on historic records dating back to ground zero for the statute.

Making service advisors exempt would be a stretch, he says, signaling a broadening of exemptions even though exemptions are supposed to be construed narrowly.

But if this occurs, he says HR professionals at auto dealerships need to review nonexempt, even borderline exempt positions.

“If there is a broadening of the construction of statutory exemptions for overtime, that’s going to affect a lot of gray area positions throughout the country,” he says. “If that happens, we’ll see more of it in the future, a loosening of the narrow construction.”

Here’s how to help if you witness sexual harassment at work

Here’s how to help if you witness sexual harassment at work

By: Meera Jagannathan, Moneyish

The most effective thing to do, one employment lawyer says, is to take contemporaneous notes.

The bystander effect is real: For instance, ousted NBC anchor Matt Lauer’s alleged sexual misconduct was “not a secret among other employees at ‘Today,’” several unnamed sources told Variety. And 16 former and current employees of Harvey Weinstein’s companies told the New Yorker the disgraced mogul’s pattern of predation was “widely known within both Miramax and the Weinstein Company.”

“Harassment law does not require (a non-management employee) to report harassment that occurs toward someone else,” Pasadena employment lawyer Ann Fromholz told Moneyish. “But is it the morally correct thing to do? Sure.” The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission encouraged employers in its 2016 task force report to incorporate bystander intervention training into their harassment prevention programs.

If you decide to take action after witnessing workplace sexual harassment, here are potential ways to help. (Not all, of course, will work in every situation or with every type of person.)

Confront the harasser. Many workplace harassers don’t even understand their behavior is inappropriate, Fromholz said. If you feel you can head straight to the source without fear of retaliation, “be specific about the conduct, be specific about the fact that it’s making people uncomfortable, and be specific that it needs to stop.” Use your judgment when deciding whether to mention the name of the person being made uncomfortable, as that could “put a target on their back”: You might say “people” are uncomfortable, for example, rather than naming specific names. “Don’t frame it as a threat,” Fromholz added. “It’s just a reasonable discussion between adults.”

Run interference. To “obnoxiously prevent there being the privacy that’s necessary for a lot of sexual harassment to happen,” said employment attorney Mary Kuntz of the Washington, D.C. firm Kalijarvi, Chuzi, Newman & Fitch, you might try gatecrashing what appears to be an unwelcome seduction in the office or at a work party. “You essentially run block for someone,” she said. “You insert yourself into conversations … You go take the seat next to the person who is trying to get the young thing to sit next to him,” she said. “You essentially don’t let them have that one-on-one engagement.”

You could also throw the victim a lifeline: “Walk up to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to go get a Diet Coke?’” Fromholz said. “In the very worst situations, where it ends up in sexual assault, there sometimes is grooming behavior from the beginning … The person who ends up assaulting will say, ‘No, no, no, she’s fine,’ … so giving that person an option, an out, is a good possibility. You can’t promise they’ll take you up on it, but you do the best you can.”

Keep in mind, warned Kuntz, that this is “a temporary Band-Aid fix”: While you can intervene when you spot the behavior, you likely won’t be around every time it occurs.

Go to a manager. If you’re a non-management worker uncomfortable approaching the harasser — due to their personality or stature within the company, perhaps — “then the best thing to do is go to somebody in some position of authority who you are comfortable with,” Fromholz said. Notifying a member of management “puts the company on notice and triggers their legal requirement to take certain action” under Title VII, EEOC sexual harassment guidelines and state law.

Talk to the victim. You may not feel comfortable approaching them; they may not feel comfortable being approached. But if you forge ahead, be sure not to retraumatize the person, Fromholz said: Speak with empathy, realize their reaction may not be what you expected, understand they may be unwilling to talk, and don’t expect their memories of the incident to be as linear as yours. You might say something to the effect of, “Hey, I saw what happened. I wasn’t comfortable with it; I’d like to talk to somebody so that it can stop; and I wanted to talk to you first.” “Unless you’re somebody who’s trained … you’re not qualified to solve their pain,” Fromholz added.

Take contemporaneous notes. “Probably the most effective thing you can do,” Kuntz said, is to record details in real time of harassment you’ve witnessed, then make yourself available to testify should your colleague file a complaint. “Memories fade over time; even over a couple of days, you forget details,” Fromholz said. “Send a text to yourself — that’s a good way of making sure you remember the details that may become important.”

“It’s testimony like that that removes Matt Lauer … You have to have people who can say, ‘No, I saw this happen,’” Kuntz said. “That corroborating testimony helps, and it can bring permanent change as opposed to just running interference one night at a party.”