What Michael Scott Can Teach HR (Plus 4 Other Lessons from Pop Culture)

Pop culture isn’t always kind to Human Resources. HR professionals have been portrayed as ineffectual weaklings (The Office), patronizing would-be therapists (Stranger than Fiction), or kiss-ups who are willing to hurt anyone to get in with the boss (9 to 5).

But you can learn a lot about what to do, or what not to do, from movies and shows on the workplace. Avoiding Melanie Griffith’s Working Girl hairstyle is only the beginning.

Helpful pop-culture tidbits include –

  • Update your benefits package before employees resort to mutiny.
  • Don’t schedule a Hawaiian Shirt Day when everyone is nervous about layoffs.
  • Fire the Michael Scotts of the world.

Since you may not have time to watch hours and hours of television and movies, we’ve condensed the important HR lessons from pop culture into one helpful cheat sheet.

Office Space

“Oh, and I almost forgot. Ah, I'm also gonna need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too. Mmmmmkay? Thaaaaaanks.” – Bill Lumbergh

1999’s Office Space doesn’t mention Human Resources specifically, but it does satirize the office jargon and empty motivations employees often accuse HR of using.

The movie follows Peter, a morose IT worker at a drab ’90s business called Initech. Peter has eight, count ’em, eight bosses. The worst boss is also the top one: Bill Lumbergh. Lumbergh is a suspender-wearing, passive-aggressive creep who tells Peter on Friday afternoons to come in on the weekends. Meanwhile, Lumbergh has also brought in some outside consultants, a.k.a. the Bobs, to see which employees he can lay off to save the company money.

And when bad news comes along, don’t follow it with sheet cake or a themed-clothing day.

Miscommunication is everywhere. Everyone has figured out that the Bobs are here to make employees interview for their own jobs, but Lumbergh pretends they’re harmless contractors. Once the Bobs get to work, this cowardly lack of confrontation only gets worse.

They don’t even bother to tell one poor guy, the famous staple-loving Milton, that he was supposed to be fired years ago. Instead, they advise Lumbergh to wait for Milton to figure it out once he stops receiving paychecks.

Lumbergh’s biggest issue is that he forgets his employees have brains. Peter knows Lumbergh isn’t asking him to come in over the weekend – he’s telling him. Lumbergh’s half-hearted attempt to pretend otherwise just offends Peter’s intelligence.

Likewise, people know that the Bobs might cost them their jobs. When Lumbergh dances around the issue at a company meeting, he just adds insult to injury. At that point, his reminder that next Friday is Hawaiian T-Shirt Day just sounds mocking.

When you’re making an announcement or sharing news, especially bad news, be as honest as the situation will allow you to be while still being responsible. People will fill in the blanks, which leaves you with a worried, unmotivated workforce.

And when bad news comes along, don’t follow it with sheet cake or a themed-clothing day. It’s disingenuous and demotivating, the opposite of what you want.

9 to 5

“Oh, you are rotten, Mr. Hart. Has anyone ever told you that? I never thought I would live to see the day I would say this about another human being, but you are evil. That's right, evil to the core!” – Doralee Rhodes

The “egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” boss Mr. Hart might be the biggest problem for the ladies working at Consolidated Companies in the film 9 to 5, but he’s far from the only one. Consolidated’s benefits package is straight out of the 1950s, and employees are at a breaking point. To make things worse, the HR rep Violet is too busy gathering gossip to share with the boss to bother updating the healthcare plan.

Once Lily Tomlin and crew take over the company after kidnapping Mr. Hart from the hospital (long story), they install a job-sharing system, flexible work hours, a daycare for employees with kids, and rehabilitation programs for alcoholic workers. Productivity jumps up almost immediately. Go figure.

Most employers don’t have to worry about being kidnapped if their benefits are lousy, but they do have to worry about turnover and absenteeism. Make your workplace friendly to working moms and dads before you lose employees. Another way to reduce turnover: make sure HR’s complaint system is easy for employees to use, so nobody has to quit because of a Mr. Hart.

Working Girl

“I'm not gonna spend the rest of my life working (…) and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up, okay?” – Tess McGill

In the 1988 film Working Girl, Tess McGill can’t catch a break. She’s a secretary with dreams of making it in finance, but she can’t get ahead of the guys above her. They don’t have her work ethic or good ideas, but they do have the fancy degrees she lacks.

Make sure HR’s complaint system is easy for employees to use.

When Tess discovers that her polished, poised boss Catherine, the one who said she wanted to help her career, stole her innovative idea, it’s the last straw. While Catherine is stuck in Switzerland with a broken leg, Tess takes over and poses as the boss to get her deal made.

When you’re recruiting or promoting, look beyond pedigree. Tess has more skill than anyone around her, but nobody has taken the time to notice. By reviewing a candidate as a whole package rather than searching for a few narrow qualities, you can find talent other recruiters miss.

The Office

“Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.” – Michael Scott

There’s a reason so many HR departments use the show The Office in training sessions to show what not to do in professional settings. The behavior of Michael Scott, regional manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, is enough to make any HR professional weep, and that’s outside of the cruel way he treats Toby.

Throughout the series, Michael Scott committed so many workplace atrocities that a real employment law firm started a blog to estimate the total fines Dunder Mifflin would have to pay, per episode, for his HR violations. In the real world, the company probably wouldn’t be solvent after all those payments.

Dunder Mifflin Scranton employees are caught between a tone-deaf, desperate-to-please manager and an ineffectual HR rep. The entire staff works around Michael’s incompetence, seriously damaging productivity, not to mention each employee’s emotional and even physical well-being. (Michael has accidentally hit an employee with his car, for example.)

A confident, involved HR professional would not tolerate Michael’s behavior. Unfortunately, Dunder Mifflin has Toby Flenderson. Toby lets Michael intimidate him, which means Michael’s multiple HR violations and ineptitude run rampant.

HR teams need to have the courage to address problems in the workplace as needed, even if it makes them unpopular. If employees feel that HR has no authority over these kinds of problems, they won’t bother to tell HR about coworkers who act like Michael Scott, thus starting a vicious cycle.

This kind of pop culture can feel like a slap in the face to some HR professionals, but they can also provide a valuable outside perspective of the field. And if you ever feel down about the way Hollywood seems to perceive your line of work, remember, it could be worse.

Want to offer your employees more than Hawaiian T-Shirt Day?
Schedule a free demo of the Beneplace online marketplace today.