Solving Workplace Conflict: Lessons From the Blurred Lines Lawsuit

This week, news broke that a Los Angeles jury had ordered Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate more than $7 million for copyright infringement.

Relatives of the late R&B singer claimed that “Blurred Lines”— a huge 2013 hit that earned Thicke and Williams a Grammy nomination — was a rip off of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

I grew up listening to Marvin Gaye, so when I first heard “Blurred Lines” I immediately recognized his work. Call me stupid, but at the time I assumed Thicke and Williams had worked out some kind of deal with Gaye’s estate.

It’s a tradition in pop/R&B music for artists to insert riffs or beats from one song into another, melding divergent music styles and periods into something both fresh and familiar. It’s fun, cool, and provides a way for artists to honor each other.

So what happened here? I’d argue this is a classic case of unnecessary conflict escalation.

Blessed are the peacemakers

I admire people who are gifted at conciliation. I am not. I like people, and I value relationships, but in the end my principles guide my behavior. If you don’t like it and want to get an attitude about it, be my guest.

That said, even I appreciate the importance of conflict de-escalation.

In business, conflict de-escalation stops mole hills from morphing into mountains, contributes to a culture of respect, and wards off lawsuits.

And I’m not one of those scary HR pros who’s always warning employers about lawsuits, either because:

  • I think that’s unimaginative; and,
  • In my experience most employers couldn’t care less about some bad thing that COULD happen when they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing forever and it never HAS happened.

However, if anything is bound to end in legal action it’s a conflict that’s escalated, people.

What causes conflict escalation?

Conflicts escalate when at least one party to the conflict is determined to win, despite the facts. Conflicts also escalate when at least one party is completely dismissive of or indifferent to the interests of the other party (or parties).

Many organizations are pretty bad at conflict de-escalation, especially when it comes to conflict that has the potential to harm the company in a dramatic way. (Read: A serious employee complaint.) So, instead of taking a step back and considering how to proceed in a manner that’s both fair and intelligent, company officials will start clamping down and covering their butts.

Luckily for those employers, most employees will become intimidated and let the complaint, no matter how valid, drop.

When an employee complaint has merit

However, there’s always an employee who isn’t like most. This employee isn’t easily threatened, and the harder the company pushes, the more determined the employee becomes.

At this point especially, it behooves the powers that be to take a careful look at the merits of the employee’s complaint. If the complaint’s off the wall, it’s off the wall, and there’s a way to tell the employee that without antagonizing him/her.

But if the employee’s complaint has merit, now’s the time for somebody in authority to start acting like it. The company doesn’t have to make itself vulnerable to exploitation, but pretending a valid issue doesn’t exist in the face of someone determined to prove otherwise is foolish.

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Striking the first blow

Sometimes people, especially those people who hate to lose — and that certainly describes more than a few in leadership positions — take an offensive stance to conflict and will hit first before being hit.

Back in August 2013, Thicke, et al “reluctantly” sued the Gaye estate in response to repeated insistence “that plaintiffs’ massively successful composition, ‘Blurred Lines,’ copies ‘their’ compositions.”

Hmmm … I’m thinking this move didn’t have quite the effect Thicke, et al expected.

Let me make it clear: Approaching conflict like combat and striking the first blow when you’re right is problematic. Doing it when you’re wrong is a huge, dumb risk.

Escalation and fall out

But listen, I don’t know what was going on in Thicke’s head while fighting the Gayes. However, I know this much — in my (entirely non-legal) opinion, no way should this thing have ended up in court, because anyone with ears can hear the strong similarity between the two tracks.

Of course, Thicke and Williams’ position is that while they may have been influenced by Gaye’s music, this particular song is their unique creation. Williams’ spokesperson put it this way: “Pharrell created ‘Blurred Lines’ from his heart, mind and soul and the song was not taken from anyone or anywhere else.”

Thicke is singing another tune. He claims he was high while recording the song and for many months afterward. He’s also saying that Williams “wrote almost every single part of the song.”

A rat from a sinking ship? I don’t know, but that’s what tends to happen when conflict gets out of control and people want to distance themselves from the mess.

What’s a better way?

In the end, conflict escalation is a lose-lose proposition, and it’s usually avoidable. Putting aside those rare cases involving the markedly stubborn or pugnacious, most people don’t want the hassle and will behave reasonably if treated fairly and with respect.

In other words, when it comes to resolving workplace conflict, it pays to put ego, greed, and apathy aside and work on de-escalating the situation — before you find yourself on the wrong side of some already blurry lines.

Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at crs036@aim.com.

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