Your Sanity Is Not For Sale: Workplace Lessons From Office Space

Editor’s Note: Last year, TLNT asked some prominent thought leaders about their favorite films with a management or HR theme. With the Academy Awards taking place Sunday, we’re republishing the best of those posts all this week. 

By Lance Haun

One of my first exposures to corporate life was the movie Office Space. When the movie was released, I was about 18 and I thought it was probably a good example of what corporate life would be like. Now call me a cynic for thinking this would be life in the corporate grind but tell me if parts of the movie don’t sound familiar:

  • Multiple bosses with redundant responsibilities.
  • Workplace efficiency consultants who help weed out employees and outsource functions.
  • Management disconnect from the employees and fear of confrontation.
  • Lame office parties and strict dress codes for customer-facing employees.

I know. It doesn’t sound like anything from Corporate America, right? But what did I learn then that I could apply to HR and my career now?

Don’t have consultants do the dirty work

Initech, the company Peter, the main character, works at is your typically poorly managed company that has lost its way. In an effort to reorganize and streamline the workplace, they hire consultants to interview all of the employees and make decisions about to who to let go and what to outsource.

Peter (played by Ron Livingston, right) has to deal with his smarmy and callous boss Bill (Gary Cole) in Office Space.
Peter (played by Ron Livingston, right) has to deal with his smarmy and callous boss Bill (Gary Cole) in Office Space.

Now, there is no denying that consultants have value in some instances. They bring in perspective without the attachments. But when you’re making a hiring or firing decision though, managers at the company impacted should be the ones who do it.

And that completely ignores the fact that the managers at Initech didn’t know what everyone did at the company. They lost track of the details and they tried to make up for it by bringing in consultants to sort it all out.

From the mouths of many of the fine consultants that work in our industry, this is typical of why they are brought into a company in the first place. I’m sure most of these folks would prefer that they could work on more exciting projects than just fixing simple mistakes, but you can’t complain too loudly about the hand that feeds you.

Picking the right person is tough

When Peter met with the consultants, he gave them answers that indicated to them that he was prime for a promotion (not just desperate to keep his job like most of his coworkers). He was unmotivated about his work and only worked an hour or two a week and seemed to do just fine.

They felt like he needed to be challenged and given more opportunity. After a little corporate fraud, a fire, and an abrupt career change, Initech was the one left figuring out what went wrong.

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With the exception of the massive corporate fraud Peter committed, this probably sounds familiar to you. Selecting the right person for the job is tough. What seems like a good fit on paper and in the interview is often a lot different when it comes to real life execution.

In Office Space, the HR consultants who are brought in make some startling personnel decisions. These two consultants are simply known as "The Two Bobs."
In Office Space, the HR consultants who are brought in make some startling personnel decisions. These two consultants are simply known as "The Two Bobs."

Of course, many people hired into new positions languish in them as they struggle with the job. And companies routinely suffer for sitting on bad hiring decisions because of pride or fear of conflict. When you are sure a person in a position is a poor fit, move them elsewhere or move on completely.

Sanity isn’t worth a paycheck

Peter went to an occupational hypnotherapist because he hated his job so much. That trip to the doctor landed this exchange:

Peter Gibbons: So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s the worst day of my life.
Dr. Swanson: What about today? Is today the worst day of your life?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah.
Dr. Swanson: Wow, that’s messed up.

I’ve fired people that I’ve known to be miserable in their job and they often stated that they would do whatever it takes to stay employed because they need the money. From what I’ve seen, this isn’t possible, at least not long term. In almost every case, they’ve eventually got into a job that was a better fit, and, something that wouldn’t make them miserable. For Peter, it was a job in construction and site cleanup.

And even if you can’t find the perfect job, you can find a job that doesn’t drive you crazy and allows you to focus on the other things in life. That’s often what we’re missing anyway.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IwzZYRejZQ

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