Five films for HR professionals

Films have the power to transport us into other worlds, times – and workplaces.

The workplace film is an age-old genre based around something that in some way we can all identify with: the weird, wonderful, and ever-confusing minefield of unspoken rules and professional expectations that is the modern workplace. These films can be great fun, or very uncomfortable to watch, especially for HR who work tirelessly to ensure their organizations are safe and suitable for everyone who works for them.

The team at Cezanne HR have compiled a list of five workplace films with real HR issues, which will either have you itching to get in there to work your HR magic, or thanking your lucky stars you don’t have to work somewhere so dysfunctional.

Inside Out (2015)

As much as Inside Out is about how we experience things differently as we grow up, it’s also a fantastically wacky and perceptive look at the workplace dynamic, and the nature of collaboration – particularly with those we don’t understand or get along with.

Inside Out tells the story of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley, whose five personified emotions: Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and self-appointed leader, Joy (Amy Poehler), attempt to guide her as she moves to a new city with her parents. Joy is what you might refer to as a star player, and although she is kind and has the success of the operation (Riley’s best interests) at heart, she sees her own contributions as more important than those of her colleagues (although I suppose if your colleagues were Fear, Disgust, Anger, and Sadness that might not be such a terrible thing).  In an effort to protect Riley from Sadness’ (Phyllis Smith) influence after she begins to take a more active role following the relocation, the two emotions are inadvertently forced to work together to find a new balance. It’s a heart-warming resolution that in the “real world” would call for some light performance management to ensure that Joy understands that the roles of her co-workers are very different to hers, but by no means less important to the operation.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

At the center of The Devil Wears Prada lies a classic example of misuse of power with an unlikely positive outcome for the central character on the receiving end – although most aren’t as lucky. The film starts with aspiring journalist Andrea “Andy” Sachs (Anne Hathaway) interviewing for and accepting the job of junior personal assistant to powerful and much feared Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor-in-chief of glossy fashion magazine Runway, despite her lack of knowledge and enthusiasm for the industry. Andy immediately (and unsurprisingly) clashes with company culture and sticks out like a sore thumb among her fashion-forward colleagues – particularly with Miranda’s senior assistant, Emily (Emily Blunt) – leaving you questioning why her interviewer thought she would be a suitable fit for the company.

But much more concerning than this glaring cultural fit oversight is the toxic work environment created by Miranda, who treats her staff with contempt, tossing her coat on Andy’s desk each morning without acknowledgement; Miranda is fully aware of the power she possesses within the company and the industry at large, and ensures her staff know it too. On Andy’s first day, Emily mentions that the last two girls to hold the junior assistant position were sacked after only a few weeks – an early indicator of the unreasonably high expectations for new hires and an apparent absence of onboarding or performance management. Later on in the film we see Miranda set Andy up for a task that she believes she can only fail, and knowingly create a situation that fosters animosity between Andy and Emily – her behavior is filled with sociopathic characteristics and her conduct towards Andy borders on harassment.

Office Space (1999)

Cult classic Office Space satirises the daily grind of typical office workers in a typical cubicle maze office for an unexceptional software company in unspecified America, showing with hilarity ensured what can go wrong when HR isn’t given the attention it deserves. Peter (Ron Livingstone) is an unengaged programmer at Initech, cooped up between cubicle walls, staring at his desk, and doing little to no work. His two closest friends in the office, Samir Nagaenajar (Ajay Naidu) and Michael Bolton (David Herman), are similarly disgruntled, particularly due to a lack of professionalism extended towards them because of their names. The trio and their fellow employees, including mumbling Milton (Stephen Root) who was laid off years ago (although he was never informed) but due to a payroll error continues to get paid and come into work, are presided over by the company’s smarmy vice president, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole).

HR at Initech appears to be extremely adept to non-existent. There’s a serious engagement problem and clearly a lack of performance management processes in place, since Peter’s slim output has been left unaddressed for some time. Bill’s attitude towards his employees isn’t doing the already problem-ridden company any favours by alienating employees with his arrogant attitude, contributing towards what some might consider a toxic workplace environment. On top of these issues is the payroll error that means Milton is still getting paid despite being let go years before – and the fact that he was unaware he’d been let go. For such a reprehensible error having gone unnoticed and unaddressed for so many years, it begs the questions: how is this company still functioning on even the most basic level?

The Apartment (1960)

Like The Devil Wears Prada, the multiple Oscar-winning The Apartment showcases an abuse of power, albeit of a very different sort, but still with a sunny ending – after all, this is Hollywood. Jack Lemmon stars as Calvin Clifford “Bud” Baxter, a hardworking and lonely office worker at a New York insurance company, who in order to advance his career grants four of his patronising managers use of his apartment to conduct their extramarital activities. When company HR director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) calls Bud to his office telling him that he knows why the four managers have all given him such glowing reviews, the pair strike up a deal: Bud gets a promotion in return for giving Sheldrake exclusive access to his apartment-cum-love shack. It’s later revealed that Sheldrake has had a string of affairs with women from the office – including Bud’s love interest (Shirley MacLaine).

Given The Apartment’s 1960 release date, the film features many outdated workplace norms that would be shocking and worthy of disciplinary or even legal action in the present day – the treatment of women being the most glaring. Regardless, Sheldrake’s abhorrent abuse of power extends far beyond swapping promotions for love nests – his position means frequent affairs with the women that work in the office are the result of a power balance tipped heavily in his favor, making it hard for them to say no to his propositions. As HR director, Sheldrake’s actions are arguably more transgressive than if he were in almost any other role – he is supposed to be balancing the needs of the company with the welfare of its employees, but instead he just looks out for his own interests.

The Human Resources Manager (2010)

Looking at the ever-tricky and contentious issue of employer responsibility, Israeli drama The Human Resources Manager follows an unnamed HR manager (Mark Ivanir) at a national bakery chain in Jerusalem as he travels to Romania to bring the body of a deceased former employee back to her family in a visible gesture of corporate goodwill. After the recently terminated employee – one of many low-paid immigrants working in Israel – is killed in a terrorist attack, an article emerges accusing the bakery of mistreating its employees, and so in an effort to avoid/placate a PR storm, the HR Manager is sent to accompany the body back to the employee’s family in Romania to be buried.

The film raises important questions about corporate responsibility for employees and what doing the “right thing” means through the company’s journey (via the HR Manager) into the personal life and past of one its replaceable human resources – after it’s too late. But the journey is more of a personal quest as the HR Manager is joined by the journalist (Guri Alfi) responsible for the initial defamatory article, as well as the deceased’s son (Noah Silver) – unlikely bonds form despite the culture clash, as they each learn something about the value of human life from the others. The film also looks at the valuable role HR plays within the company and lives of its employees, raising thought-provoking topics, such as how to best support the welfare of those working for you.

Is there a great workplace film with an HR moral you think we should watch? Let us know, we’d love to hear your recommendations. 

You may be interested in reading: 5 TED Talks for HR people


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