Whenever I’m watching Selling Sunset, the new-ish glossy Netflix reality show about a high-end real estate firm in L.A., I find myself shouting questions at the TV… fairly frequently. “What is this MUSIC?” is a common query of mine, as is “What is that outfit???????” But the question I have again and again is some variation of “HOW are they acting like this AT WORK?”
Because that’s the thing: based on the way these people interact, it’s easy to forget that these are co-workers in their place of employment, doing extremely chill things like screaming “Do you have DEMENTIA?” in earnest at one another during a work event. Because many of the key cast members are so boundary-less and so wildly confrontational, the most normal workday occurrences somehow get elevated to the level of a Supreme Court case.
While watching Selling Sunset, I regularly find myself wondering what Alison Green, author of the excellent workplace advice column Ask a Manager (and also VICE’s own Amateur Hour) would think of these situations. So when the third season debuted on August 7, I asked her. Here is what she had to say about some of the most jaw-dropping work moments on the show. (Note: spoilers throughout!)
VICE: One of the things that jumped out to me during all three seasons of Selling Sunset was how often the employees say “we’re like family here”—often as defense of boundaryless, terrible behavior, or the fact that they are way too involved in each other’s personal lives. (There was all the Roman/Davina wedding invite drama, or the “second bachelorette” party drama that led to Christine screaming at Heather to “stop being a little bitch” at Heather’s broker’s open.) The implication is that it’s normal for family members to fight like this, but they’ll simply have to find a way to move on, as families do.
In their defense, Jason and Brett are literally family, and a lot of the employees seem to be genuinely close. And the Friendsgiving dinner seemed nice! But it seems like this is all fairly toxic and maybe the family they are like is… an incredibly dysfunctional one. What do you think?
Alison Green: Ahhhh, the “we’re like a family” trope, used to justify dysfunctional workplaces everywhere. Work… is not a family. Work can be a place where people have close, supportive relationships and genuinely care about each other, but people are being paid to be there and presumably wouldn’t show up otherwise. “We’re like a family” is often a flag for dysfunction; it frequently means boundaries get violated and employees are expected to be loyal to the company over their own interests (for example, working long hours for low pay and accepting bad management because “family”).
Employees should try hard not to let that framework get into their heads. The more they can see work as work, the clearer their boundaries will be and the easier it will be to act in their own self-interest. That doesn’t mean they can’t have warm relationships with their co-workers—they can! They can even keep doing things like Friendsgiving. But they need to stay really clear on the fact that this is business, and it’s OK to look out for yourself, advocate for what you need, and leave if the arrangement no longer serves your needs. (In theory it’s OK to advocate for yourself within a family too—but there’s a reason people often have trouble doing that with their relatives, and we don’t want to bring that dynamic into work too.)
The Oppenheim Group employees have always been pretty open and casual in terms of their conversations; you might hear a “Christine, your boobs look huge today” or someone might reference their own fake boobs. It’s all very lighthearted.
But in Season 3, Episode 3, the conversation turns to the topic of shaving one’s legs, and then Heather brings up the fact that she likes to grow “a bush” sometimes. Christine said she does the same, because she likes to “mix it up.” Heather then went on to say that hers “isn’t, like, a fluffy bush” but that “it grows in perfect” and “looks really sexy.” Finally one of the bosses—who were at their desks within earshot the whole time—said “Heather” in sort of a “knock it off” tone, and Heather replied, “It’s sexy, trust me! It’s hot, you get like a new vagina.” But she did stop talking about it after that.
This conversation is totally NSFW, right?!
Alison Green: Working in an environment with a lot of racy talk can really skew your sense of norms about what is and isn’t okay for work. If everyone around you is talking about boobs and bushes, it’s easy to start feeling like it must be OK.
But no, this isn’t OK for work! That’s because at work there’s no way to know for sure that everyone around you is comfortable with sexualized conversation. People won’t always speak up if they’re not, because they don’t want to create awkwardness in the place they depend on for their income. It’s not uncommon for someone to think, “Everyone was smiling and laughing, so they must be fine with it”… and then find out later that in fact one or more people were uncomfortable but didn’t feel they could speak up.
It can also pose a legal problem for an employer (what’s known as hostile environment sexual harassment), because federal law requires employees to be permitted to work in an environment that isn’t sexualized.
It’s good that a boss told Heather to knock it off—but it sounds like he should have intervened sooner, and he should have followed up with her privately afterward to explain what is and isn’t OK at work. (And “it’s sexy, trust me” is not a defense to harassment charges.)
An ongoing plot this season is the fact that the Oppenheim employees think Mary is getting listings thrown her way because she and Jason used to date. In the fourth episode, she defends herself in a confessional, saying her co-workers are being extremely rude and disrespectful, and are trying to take away her accomplishments and hard work away from her.
It’s not totally clear if there is definitely favoritism going on; at one point, we hear that Mary produces more than anyone else, but Maya counters that it’s because of the listings they are throwing at her. But we also know that Jason and Mary adopted a dog together when they dated, and share “custody”—and that they adopted a second dog together after the breakup because they were so great at co-parenting. So who is right here?
Mary is absolutely right that it’s insulting and offensive for people to imply that her success comes from sleeping with her boss—and that’s a charge that tends to only be leveled at women, not men.
That said, it’s tough to work in a set-up where someone reports to an ex who they still have a close personal friendship with. In fact, the ongoing close relationship could be more of an issue to her colleagues than the fact that they used to date, since any time one person clearly has access to the boss that others don’t have, that can cause resentment.
If it were just a question of Mary having dated Jason in the past, I’d tell her to ignore the comments—you know you’re succeeding on your own merits and you can’t control what others think. But because you do still have a close relationship with him, it’s worth reflecting privately on whether the current friendship (not the past relationship) could legitimately raise concerns about fairness for your co-workers. That’s not to take away from her accomplishments at all! But sometimes managers do give more access and opportunities to people they’re close to—and if that’s happening here, the right move might be to use her influence with Jason to help others get similar opportunities. If she doesn’t do that, and there is indeed favoritism happening, I think she’s got to be realistic that her co-workers are going to resent it.
This season, there’s also a bunch of drama surrounding Davina’s $75 million listing. Before she took it, there was major pushback from one of the twins. Davina was pretty insistent, and at one point was like, “Well, I am going to do it anyway,” and they had to remind her that she couldn’t just… do whatever she wants at work. But the compromise was that she could have three months, and if it didn’t sell, they’d cut their losses and drop the listing.
So in the third episode, the three month period is winding down and the house hasn’t sold and Davina is insisting she just needs more time. She confronts Jason about it at a happy hour. Everyone starts gathering around, and Christine begins making a case on Davina’s behalf.
So the thing that really stood out to me is that when Davina attempts to say something in agreement with Christine, Christine turns to her and yells, “Shut the fuck up while I’m talking!” while wagging a finger at her. Is that an OK thing to do to your co-worker?
Under no circumstances is it OK for to yell at a co-worker to “shut the fuck up”! That’s rude and disrespectful, and if someone speaks to co-workers that way, they’re either wildly out of sync with professional norms or their workplace is. In this case, it might be both. The fact that a boss was there to witness this and apparently didn’t react is not a good sign about the office culture or the boss’s ability to recognize and push back on toxicity.
In theory, Davina should say something both to her and to Jason. In reality, she’s working somewhere where no one reacted when this happened—which raises the question of whether addressing it will do any good. She certainly can try—she’s on very solid ground in objecting to being spoken to that way—but I’d also be prepared for a dismissive response.
As a separate issue, if your boss is telling you it’s time to cut your losses on an $75 million project he discouraged you from taking on in the first place, you probably need to listen to that rather than digging in! It’s OK to explain why you see it differently, but then he gets to make the call (and “I’m going to do it anyway” isn’t usually an option when your boss tells you no).
One of the most shocking scenes in this season comes in the finale, at Christine’s Gothic snow castle million dollar wedding. During the reception, Davina—totally unprovoked—starts going in on Chrishell about how there are “two sides to every story,” insinuating that Chrishell isn’t telling the truth about her sudden mid-season divorce, or that maybe her ex was justified in leaving her all of a sudden. Davina just kept insisting that the other employees “don’t really know what really happened” because Chrishell hasn’t been forthcoming about the details of her marriage—even though a) it’s none of their business, and b) her attorney advised her to keep mum.
Davina and Christine have always been weirdly nasty to Chrishell, but this was especially hard to watch—the coldness and lack of empathy from Davina was really stunning, especially because viewers have seen over the season how completely shattered Chrishell is. I’m curious what you would tell Chrishell to do if she wrote to you about this.
I’d say, “I’m sorry, your co-workers sound awful.”
When someone does one or two hurtful things to you, it’s reasonable to try to talk it out, see if you can put whatever happened behind you, and move forward in a healthier way. But when someone has a long track record of hurtful and toxic behavior… well, it’s probably not realistic to expect you’ll see major changes. Even if Chrishell gets an apology from Davina for her unprovoked attack at the wedding, it’s likely to be given begrudgingly and not significantly change the behavior in the future.
Ideally, Chrishell would have a manager who created a work culture where cruel behavior like this couldn’t get a foothold. There are offices where meanness is so out of sync with the culture that Davina would have been quickly shut down. But because it sounds like this is a place that allows toxicity to thrive, I think her best bet is to accept that she works with some jerks and her management—for whatever reason—has shown they won’t intervene. She’d need to decide if she can work there reasonably happily knowing this likely won’t change. Some people can disconnect emotionally from jerks at work. If she can, then great. But if she can’t, there’s no shame in deciding that she wants to work somewhere that expects people to be reasonably kind to colleagues.