Five Employment Law Takeaways From American Idol

Employment law lessons are truly everywhere.

Previously on the Employment Blawg, we’ve discussed valuable legal training you can glean from such unexpected sources as The Office, March Madness, Mr. Rogers, Simon & Garfunkel and — occasionally — even lawyers.

Today, we offer some deep insights inspired by the just-completed season of the nation’s #1 TV show, American Idol. Just in case you’ve somehow managed to escape ever seeing the show, here’s the basic set-up: a panel of all-powerful judges helps America decide who gets a career in music and who doesn’t. Sort of the ultimate talent-evaluation exercise.

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Without further ado, here are are my …

Top 5 takeaways from American Idol 

  1. Humility wins. For the third season in a row, arguably the most humble contestant finished #1. This year’s loooow-key awwww-shucks winner, Phillip Phillips, repeatedly referred himself as “blessed” just to be in the competition at all, stuck to his drab gray outfits rather than don the “star”-ish ones forced on him by American Idol designer Tommy Hilfiger and basically was content to just be himself. The business book classic Good to Great and lots of other studies have found that humility is the absolute #1 trait of highly successful employees. The lesson? Be humble or go home.
  2. Accommodate, accommodate, accommodate. Early in the season, it was disclosed that Phillips suffers from a serious medical issue. Some speculated that he would be sent packing. Instead, the American Idol producers accommodated his condition by allowing him to skip certain activities (like the lame-o Ford commercial the contestants shot each week). The lesson? Accommodate those with disabilities — they just might be your most talented employees.
  3. Love, love, love. In my humble opinion, all of employment law and HR theory boils down to one simple rule: treat others the way you’d like to be treated. Most experts agreed that the talent on this year’s show blossomed more than ever before. The judges now give waaaay more positive feedback than in the unnecessarily nasty Simon Cowell years when contestants were often left quaking in fear and under-performing. As we discussed in my last webinar, a recent study showed that the ratio of positive-to-negative feedback in high-performing teams is a whopping 5.6: 1 while on low-performing teams it’s a mere .36:1. The lesson? The Golden Rule works.
  4. Honesty, honesty, honesty. Following the Golden Rule doesn’t mean failing to tell the truth, however. Every year American Idol features loads of “singers” who have zero vocal ability but apparently have never been told so. Too often this year, the judges seemed to shy away from offering any constructive criticism even when it was clearly warranted. As a result, the producers brought in big-time music producer Jimmy Iovine to tell contestants the plain truth. The lesson? Evaluate your talent honestly. If you don’t, you’re not doing them or yourself any favors.
  5. Don’t despair if you don’t win. Feeling under-appreciated by your boss? Didn’t get that promotion you were hoping for? Don’t worry — true talent has a way of rising to the top. In fact, some of the most successful post-American Idol careers have belonged to those who didn’t finish first (Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry, just to name a few.) That could also happen this year, as many felt that the most talented contestant was third-place finisher Joshua Ledet. The lesson? Winning ain’t everything.

This was originally published on Manpower Group’s Employment Blawg.

Mark Toth has served as Manpower Group North America's Chief Legal Officer since 2000. He also serves on the company’s Global Leadership Team, Global Legal Lead Team and North American Lead Team. Mark is recognized as an expert on legal issues affecting the U.S. workplace and is frequently quoted in media from The Wall Street Journal to 60 Minutes. He is also a past Chair of the American Staffing Association and is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources. Contact him at


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