Real Life Lessons from Fictional Workplaces

With all the years I have spent in HR, it is hard to turn off the HR part of my brain when watching a movie or TV show or reading a book. I start analyzing the fictional workplaces I encounter, and I have even used them as examples during presentations. Even though things can get a bit wacky in fictional workplaces, they still provide a good jumping off point to talk about important HR topics. Here are a few of my favorites.

Parks & Recreation: The Value of Good Workplace Proximity Associates

I loved my time spent with the employees of my favorite government department of Pawnee, Indiana during the seven seasons Parks & Recreation was on the air. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Leslie Knope, Ron Swanson and everyone else was the value of working with people you enjoy being around. Ron is not one for emotional attachment. He refers to his work friends as workplace proximity associates, but it is clear by the final season that coworker friendships are the biggest reasons a libertarian like him could put up with his government job.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when we realize that Ron and Leslie’s feud at the beginning of season seven is based on Ron feeling abandoned as his parks department coworkers move on to bigger and better things. He feels his friendship with Leslie changing when she takes on a national parks job and leaves him behind. When we see the value of workplace friendships for someone like Ron, we know that they are important.

In my own career, I have had jobs that were stressful or difficult, but it was often the people I worked with that brought me back each day. Somehow having friends at work makes even the most annoying task seem tolerable.

Hogwarts: Recognizing Hidden Talent

Do not let the magic and the epic life and death battles fool you into thinking there are not HR lessons to be learned from the Harry Potter series. Hogwarts, the school that provides much of the setting for the novels, is a workplace full of the problems you will find in the real world. One of my grad school professors once told me that she thought the faculty at Hogwarts was the most accurate portrayal of a real faculty because J.K. Rowling did a good job at capturing how wacky an educational workplace can be.

Dumbledore is headmaster of the school. Once Hagrid’s name is cleared of past wrongdoing that had kept him from finishing his wizarding education, Dumbledore promotes him from gamekeeper to teacher despite the naysayers. What I like about Dumbledore as a leader is that he recognizes the hidden talent of his employees—even when others don’t see that. As HR professionals and managers, it is important that we do the same. This means keeping an eye out for employees in roles where their skills are being underused, providing training when you see potential and advocating for employees who deserve promotions but may go unrecognized.

Arrested Development: How Not to Treat Employees

The Bluth Company is my favorite dysfunctional workplace. While it rarely shows itself to be a good workplace, it certainly provides plenty of examples of how not to run a business. When the head of the business spent the majority of the original run in prison or under house arrest, you know the company has problems.

The Bluth Company is not known for its stellar treatment of employees. For example, when George Bluth, Sr. is running the company (before his questionable practices land him in prison), he would sometimes have what he called Black Fridays. On these days he would have his employees load all the office equipment in a truck after telling them they were getting fancy, new equipment. The point was to get all the valuable equipment locked up, so it wouldn’t be damaged when he told everyone they were fired. Then he would hire a new staff that was younger and cheaper, and their first task would be to unload the truck and set up their workstations. George quite enjoyed this process.

Clearly this is not the way to handle a mass layoff or any kind of termination. I see the Bluth approach toward employee management as similar to the CEO or HR director who sees their employees as expendable. These are the folks who say, “If an employee isn’t happy here, they can just leave. I’ll find someone else.” When someone has that attitude, it is easy to see how they could actually relish George Bluth’s approach to firing his whole staff. In reality, employees are human beings with needs beyond simply having a job, which means we need to put effort into creating positive workplaces and being sensitive when things get tough.

What HR lessons have you taken away from your favorite fictional workplaces?

About the Author

Stephanie Hammerwold, PHR, is the owner of Hammerwold & Pershing Consulting and specializes in small business HR support. Stephanie is a regular contributor at Blogging4Jobs and The HR Gazette, and she gives presentations on a variety of job search and workplace topics. She specializes in training, employee relations, women’s issues and writing employment policy. Connect with Stephanie on LinkedInTwitter or Facebook.

stephanie@hammerwoldpershing.com'

Author: Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, PHR, is the co-owner of Hammerworld & Pershing and specializes in small business HR support. Stephanie writes as the HR Hammer and is a regular contributor at Blogging4Jobs, The HR Gazette and TalentCulture, and she gives presentations on a variety of job search and workplace topics. She specializes in training, employee relations, women’s issues and writing employment policy. Connect with Stephanie on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.

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