A lot of memorable workplace incidents that have graced our TV screens would create an absolute HR nightmare in real life. So how would an HR manager or consultant respond to such situations? We’ve asked the experts for their advice!
Workplace sitcoms and nightmare HR situations
There are so many fantastic sitcoms set in workplaces; as work forms such a core part of many people’s daily lives, it only makes sense for it to end up as the focus of many a situational comedy classic.
Comedy can also hold up a mirror to real life – albeit a fun-house mirror where everything is hilariously distorted. After all, without a grain of truth in their themes and situations, we wouldn’t find situational comedies nearly so funny.
We’ve picked five of our favourite moments from workplace sitcoms where an HR issue has cropped up and asked some HR experts and friends of myhrtoolkit to contribute their opinions on what they’d recommend if such a situation came up in a real workplace.
Friends – Rachel gets fired
Let’s start off the list with a memorable moment from the U.S. sitcom Friends, which focuses on a group of 20-somethings navigating love, life and their careers in New York city.
The character Rachel has a memorable career journey, starting off as a waitress but eventually getting dream roles in the fashion industry. There’s ups and downs on the way though.
For instance, she gets fired from her job with Ralph Lauren when her boss catches her having an interview in a restaurant with a representative from Gucci. Clearly a case of conflicting interest!
Of course, employees looking for other jobs – and competitors – is a common thing. How can employers and managers handle the situation when it occurs in real life? HR expert Gemma Dale gives some insight:
“We sometimes see people who want to leave an organisation as ‘traitors’ or disloyal. Instead, we should see it as a learning opportunity. Taking the time to understand why someone has chosen to leave their job can bring many benefits. It may help to identify poor practices or managers, as well as identify important trends or patterns. Where an employee is identified as a potential leaver before they hand in their notice, it is an opportunity for a conversation. Find out why they want to leave; you may or may not be able to change their mind but you can gain valuable insight.
“When an employee is planning to join a competitor, the situation can be more complex. Under UK law, employees owe their employer a duty of confidentiality and this duty survives their resignation. Employees may also have restrictive covenants contained within their contracts of employment that expressly prevent them from working for competitor organisations for a set time period. If there are concerns that an employee joining a competitor will breach their contractual or implied duties, it’s time to get formal legal advice.”
Gemma is Co-Founder of The Work Consultancy, which helps businesses with their people and wellbeing needs.
Fawlty Towers – Bad stress management!
Award-winning British 70s sitcom Fawlty Towers follows the lives of a couple running a hotel. Despite working in the hospitality industry, owner-manager Basil Fawlty is ironically the least friendly and hospitable person imaginable!
There are many memorable scenes where Basil’s stress and anger get the better of him – like when his car breaks down and he attacks it with a tree branch. At one point, his stressed out behaviour while trying to catch a non-paying guest even draws the attention of a psychiatrist.
Even without reaching the highly-strung heights of Basil Fawlty, lots of stress in the workday can have a negative impact over time. As stress expert Geraldine Joaquim says:
“Our stress response system has evolved over millions of years to keep us safe from wild animals and marauding tribes. In today’s world those life-or-death situations have been translated into anything that acts as a barrier to us or pushes us outside our comfort zone, whether it’s coping with a difficult client, running late for a meeting, giving a presentation.
“Stress has a cumulative effect, when we have a completely overblown reaction (like Basil and his car), it is often not that particular event that causes the reaction, it’s the point of overload that tips us over.”
You can find out more about stress management and employee wellbeing over on Geraldine’s website, Mind Your Business.
Scrubs – Workplace bullying
Surrealist sitcom Scrubs follows the life of various members of staff working at the fictional Sacred Heart Hospital. One of the most iconic relationships in the show is that of the main protagonist, junior doctor J.D., and the Janitor, whose name is never confirmed.
From the very first day of J.D.’s job, the Janitor constantly bullies him, from slinging verbal insults and demeaning nicknames to stalking him around the hospital and tampering with his belongings. The Janitor even admits his motive to bully: “I like to pick one person and torment them relentlessly for no reason.”
Their antagonistic relationship – with the Janitor usually having the upper hand – is hilarious onscreen, but how can we deal with escalating bullying situations in real workplaces?
Myhrtoolkit Founder, Jon Curtis has had a lot of experience with workplace bullying issues as an employment solicitor for 20 years. He says:
“In dealing with complex bullying issues, smaller companies will tend to rely on informal methods and won’t have the training or resources to adopt a formal process. Informal processes, if used sensibly and intelligently, can be highly effective. However, the risk is probably higher if the process fails because often the law will consider a formal process to be the gold standard.
“SMEs are therefore well-advised to take professional advice when it comes to workplace bullying.”
Learn more: The business cost of ignoring workplace bullying
The Office (US) - An unusual funeral
The US version of The Office is a mockumentary following hapless yet heartfelt branch manager Michael and his patient employees who work for the fictional paper sales company Dunder Mifflin. There are so many HR nightmares within the themes of the show (as with its UK originator), from health and safety mishaps to bullying and even harassment. However, a particularly memorable episode, ‘Grief Counseling’, focuses specifically on grief in the workplace and how to handle it.
Things start off on a serious note, as Michael finds out his former boss has passed away. Michael holds a grief counselling session for staff that nobody takes particularly seriously. Following on from this, the discovery of a dead bird that had flown into a window that morning prompts an outlandish funeral, featuring a makeshift coffin, musical accompaniment and a funeral pyre.
This clearly isn’t the most conventional way to deal with grief – but what is the best way to deal with instances of grief in real workplaces? HR and policy expert Gemma Dale has previously written a guide for us on how to manage compassionate leave. Within this article, she gives the following advice:
"Technically, there’s no such thing legally as ‘compassionate leave’. It’s a term that we use to describe time off provided to employees following either a bereavement or to deal with difficult life situations.
"Having effective policies around leave can really make a difference to employees. You can choose to offer the statutory minimum (which in some cases could be no leave at all). Or, you can choose to put more generous policies in place that will assist your employees during some of their most challenging times. This can also help to make you a more attractive place to work."
Ugly Betty – Dress codes and bullying
Even the title of the 2000s show Ugly Betty could cause an HR nightmare in a real life workplace. Betty Suarez starts working for the fictional fashion magazine Mode as assistant to the managing director's wayward son Daniel - mainly because her 'unfashionable' looks satisfy the publishing mogul's desire for his son not to want to pursue her romantically. Hence the use of the word 'ugly' in the title. HR-wise, we're not off to a good start here!
One of the ongoing themes of the show concerns Betty's dress sense (or, in her colleagues' opinions, lack of dress sense). It explores the idea that it's what's on the inside that counts. Unfortunately, Betty goes through some pretty serious bullying before that message eventually comes across.
How is it best for real workplaces to handle dress code disputes and potential bullying about a staff member's dress sense? Where do we draw the line on how we ask employees to dress? HR specialist Claire Powell from London-based HR company Weller Mae shares her insight:
"Due to reasons such as Betty experienced at Mode, several legal cases have been highlighted in recent years in the media and uncertainties amongst employers and employees about what dress code is acceptable is in question.
"Employers should ensure that when considering a dress code that it satisfies the Equality act 2010. For example, one court case high-lighted a temporary worker who was sent home without pay for refusing to wear high heels at work. Staff can be dismissed for failing to comply with a dress code; however, employers should be cautious when operating a dress code in this way. A dress code should not be stricter, or lead to a detriment, for one gender over the other.
"Employers should communicate a clear and fair dress code policy to all employees and address any objections reasonably and appropriately.
"When bullying is identified in the workplace, whether it is due to how someone dresses or other reasons, employers should encourage employees to come forward and speak out about it to their manager or HR. Managers should be trained in how to identify and address these type of behaviours and should be educating their employees on expected conduct in the workplace. The process should be communicated formally in the company grievance and disciplinary policy along with a code of conduct.”
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Written by Camille Brouard
Camille is a Senior Marketing Executive for myhrtoolkit who writes on topics including HR technology, workplace culture, leave management, diversity, and mental health at work.