When fiction is really fact: Films and HR lessons

by 25 Oct 2011

Perhaps in a sign of the times, recently the silver screen in Australia has seen a spate of films that document the serious and sometimes amusing side of workplaces.

The recent Australian release, Face to Face, is an intense drama that provides a deep insight into the old adage: sometimes fact is more riveting than fiction.

The film is based on a play of the same name by renowned playright David Williamson, who was inspired by transcribed notes from actual restorative justice conferences conducted in the workplace by John McDonald (pictured), portrayed in the film by Matthew Newton.

The curious and intriguing notion of 'restorative justice' is explored in this film via a series of 'conferences' called to talk through the mishaps of  the key character, Wayne. In a fit of rage, Wayne purposefully rams into his boss's car after being the butt of an unkind workplace prank.

Using the conferencing method, the young man is forced to face his former colleagues and workmates, all of whom have their own issues and secrets.

It's not just new releases, however, which strike accord with HR leaders. Human Capital offers a list of films with some interesting workplace lessons. Some are light; some are heavy. All will ring a bell of recognition - and perhaps a cringe of embarrassment - for any HR professional.


Film HR take-away

The Human Resources Manager (2011) was Israel's submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film.

It's a tragic-comedy about the HR manager for Israel's largest industrial bakery, who finds out that a woman who is working for them was killed a fortnight previously in a terrorist bombing. In order to avoid a scandal in the press, the owner of the bakery orders the HR manager to accompany the body back to an unnamed Balkan country to her relatives.

Despite sometimes excessive bureaucratic processes and daunting hurdles, HR professionals need to retain their compassion and empathy for their fellow employees; the give-away is in the profession's name: human resources.

This film also proves that HR professionals are crucial to the reputation and brand of a company, and also, perhaps, the moral guardians; they are brand ambassadors.

Working Girl (1988) told the story of a secretary who has her big business idea stolen by her boss; when an opportunity arises, she steals it back by pretending she has her boss's job.
Don't expect the CEO or other executives to always have the great ideas; innovation can come from anyone in the organisation - the culture and business leaders just need to be open to it.
Wall Street (1988) informed audiences that greed was good, as corporate wheeler and dealer Gordon Gekko launched hostile takeovers at the expense of the livelihoods of the common man.
Organisations that enter M&A negotiations without first considering the people and corporate culture elements do so at their peril. Planning involving these elements pre-M&A, during the process, and post-M&A are proven keys to success.
Nine to Five (1980) followed the exploits of three female employees of a "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" and their increasingly frantic efforts to turn the tables on him.

Although a product of its time, sadly Nine to Five's basic premise is still relevant. Sexual discrimination and harassment still take place in the workplace 30 years later.

HR professionals can play an important role in keeping the gender issue on the corporate agenda, not only through innovative workplace policy but education for managers on topics such as unconscious bias.

Trading Places (1984) was a wish fulfillment fantasy in which a snobbish investor with an Ivy League education and a wily street con artist find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires.
Never judge a book by its cover! Although pre-employment screening will of course present only the best, most suitable candidates, sometimes hiring for personality and cultural fit and then training for skills is the way to go.

Outsourced (2006) followed the story of Todd, who changes his life when the call centre he manages in Seattle is outsourced to India. There he trains his replacement and the team to sound American.

One star on the staff is Asha, who teaches Todd that he should reciprocally learn about India and its culture.

With the majority of Australia's financial institutions and many other large corporates offshoring work, this tale of job cuts, cross-cultural management and globalisation seems culled from today's headlines.

In addition to visa and legal requirements for workers, organisations dealing in global markets with global workforces need to consider cultural awareness training for employees, and ensure their offshore partners are reputable.

Horrible Bosses (2011) followed the story of three friends as their relationships with their bosses start to unravel.

These employer/employee relationships are strained: one of the friends is expected to work ridiculous hours; another is the victim of unwelcome sexual advances; and the third likes his boss...until his boss dies, only to be replaced by his boss's incompetent, drug-taking son. When they realise their awful bosses are standing in the way of happiness, the three plot murder.

Poor management styles are rife in business today, yet the impact on retention and even employee health is only just being understood.

In an OfficeTeam poll earlier this year, 73% of Australians reported that having a manager who they respect and can learn from is one of the most important factors in their work environment. The recruitment company said bad management styles can include everything from indecisiveness, poor delegation and lack of organisation to undermining and bullying employees.

The survey also found that problems most commonly arise when a manager doesn't have adequate experience or time to manage their team, and that this can often be addressed by training or better resource management.

The Office (UK, 2001) told the saga of an office that faces closure when the company decides to downsize its branches. A documentary film crew follows staff and the manager David Brent as they continue their daily lives.

The majority of laughs from The Office come from awkward and embarrassing situations. If terrible bosses share one common trait - a lack of respect for employees - David Brent leads the pack.

Yet, behind the laughs are serious issues, ranging from bullying and harassment (often perpetrated by supporting character and "bloody good” sales rep Chris Finch) to fear of redundancy (mature age worker Malcolm fears he will be first in line), through to team training sessions that fail due to lack of leadership support (David attempts to undermine and take control of an external facilitators' session). The ultimate take-away for HR is perhaps to use

The Office as an example of what not to do - on just about every front.




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