HR might not seem the stuff of Hollywood, but a closer inspection reveals
stars of the silver screen frequently following a plot of people management
issues. So what can you learn from these leading roles? More than you might
imagine… By Phil Boucher
When Yoda took on Luke Skywalker as his Jedi apprentice in The Empire
Strikes Back, it’s doubtful that he had any HR issues in mind. Similarly, when
The Italian Job landed in Michael Caine’s lap he probably didn’t think any
further than the need to find some Mini Coopers and a team to drive them
through the sewers of Turin.
Yet in both these films, as well as countless others there are themes and
issues which have strong parallels with those of the profession.
In Yoda’s case it was to train and motivate someone to do a specific and
highly influential job. For Caine, it was recruiting, training and installing a
team ethic that mattered (motivation was taken care of by the pot of gold
waiting in Italy).
But in a profession that is used to being shut out in the cold, it’s not
altogether surprising that HR has generally had to be content with a backstage
role as far as movie stardom goes.
As Paul Keogh, European HR director for 20th Century Fox points out,
"In movies you need to present something in simple terms of good and bad
and to have someone appear from nowhere saying ‘no, you can’t do that!’
wouldn’t be realistic. In many cases it would totally ruin the story." So
like many situations HR faces, its position on celluloid appears to be one of
support and ethical input as opposed to the glamour of a lead role.
Sergio Angelini, spokesman for the British Universities Film and Video
Council, contends that it is a purely for technical reasons that HR is hardly
ever mentioned. "The themes are partly a result of the scripting process
as writers extrapolate the process they have had to go through in their working
lives to get things made," he explains. "By extension these have also
been experienced by the majority of people in the workplace and, consequently,
And this isn’t simply restricted to workplace dramas. Think of a war film
and you are likely to encounter themes of recruitment, training, motivation,
relocation and promotion. Not to mention pay, redundancy and crisis management.
Take in a cowboy film and you’ll either have someone negotiating a
settlement with the local tribe of Native Americans, or repressed townspeople
being encouraged and trained to fight a gang of bloodthirsty outlaws.
Even horror flicks, gangster movies and costume dramas aren’t exempt.
Reservoir Dogs has a section where you find out how the team is recruited for
the ill-fated bank heist and how those in charge make their personnel decisions.
The bottom line is that movies have to strike a chord with the audience to
become commercially successful. This means reflecting universal human struggles
and ambitions, even if the action is taking place on Mars, or if the film is
Andrew Craske, spokesman for Skillset, the national training organisation
for the audio and visual industry, comments, "Films are able to highlight
how training and development opens opportunities for people.
"In many cases they deal with situations where people simply aren’t
expected to do anything but are enabled to achieve all sort of exceptional
things. They show that with support and the right training people can achieve
These human aspects are frequently identical to the issues that HR deals
with on a daily basis. However, the profession is usually left out because
there is no time, space or need to put them in the film.
But while most storylines are as far removed from HR reality as can possibly
be imagined, others, such as Nine to Five and Jerry Maguire, use a more
familiar workplace basis.
In the case of Nine to Five Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda even demonstrate the
bottom line business advantages of flexible working, job-sharing and a company
The fact that they have to kidnap their "sexist, egotistical, lying,
bigot" of a boss to do it is probably best ignored.
These, more than anything else, highlight the link between human stories,
the movies and HR – even if the profession itself remains unnoticed in the
"Films are about people issues and the things that affect people and
interest them," says Keogh. "When you are making a movie the story
has got to excite and interest the audience. These themes are often the same as
those dealt with by HR because HR deals with the human face of working
With this in mind we have scoured movie land to find the three films that
highlight HR issues better than any other – both good and bad.
This might be a movie about a prison escape and the lives of a group of
convicts, but during the film Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is said to be "a
regular H&R block" by Red (Morgan Freeman).
Along with doing the tax returns for the prison officers and warden (and for
most of the other prison officers in New England), Dufresne advises on
work-related expenses, savings accounts, pension schemes and trust funds.
Through persistent lobbying of the local and state governments he also gets
funding to build the Brooks Hatlen Memorial Library. Described by Red as the
"best prison library in New England", it allows him to put inmates
through their high school diplomas and improve their skills for the outside
Commenting on the film, Dan Jolin, features editor of Total Film magazine,
says, "He’s a good man in a bad place and is simply saying, ‘I have these
skills. I want to give these to other people to help them.
"It’s an idealistic thing he does to improve the library. It touches on
themes of education and training as both individual progress and progress for
society. To turn people round at the bottom of the ladder so that when they
leave prison they are better people, is symptom and effect of him trying to
find the good in what has to be the worst place on earth."
Dufresne’s initiatives eventually inspire the warden to institute an
"Inside-Out programme’ where inmates are given the freedom to work outside
the prison walls.
And behind it all Dufresne provides a full HR service of pensions, payroll
and accounts. This puts him at the warden’s side and ultimately provides him
with the means to make good his escape.
"He uses HR to make life easier and to win the warden over. It’s also
one he uses to get one over on the warden – he finds his faults, blackmails him
and this eventually leads to the downfall of the whole regime," says
"There’s also an argument that he’s providing a very useful service to
the prison officers that wasn’t there before."
"But in a way it is anachronistic to think of it as HR," Jolin
continues. "Human resources is a very modern concept. In that sense it was
something that people were not aware of in the 1920s when Andy Dufresne goes
into prison. But by the time he escapes it is the 1960s and people are able to
relate to it. It has become more important in the workplace by then."
When lawyer Andrew Becket (Tom Hanks) is put in charge of a prestige case he
treats it with due diligence and dedication. But within weeks he has been
sacked on the grounds that he negligently filed some important case documents –
something that he categorically denies.
Taking his case to lawyer Jo Miller (Denzel Washington), Becket argues that
he was sacked because the law firm discovered he is gay and has AIDS. Also,
that the lost file episode was a set-up.
The rest of the film concerns itself with Becket’s battles against the virus
and his former employer, and highlights clear themes of discrimination and
wrongful dismissal. Throughout, there is a complete lack of any HR involvement.
So is there an HR lesson? Keogh says, "He was treated unfairly by
people acting out of prejudice and emotion rather than reasonableness. That’s
where HR can make a huge difference.
"HR is able to show a sense of awareness and distinguish between a
reasonable course of action and one that is not appropriate."
For Becket this lack of HR intervention results in public humiliation and
resentment as his case attracts the attention of the local media.
He is also forced to strip to the waist in court to display the sores that
were spotted by his employers prior to the dismissal.
Eventually he wins the case and is awarded damages of $4m by the jury.
Sadly, he dies that night in hospital.
"The film’s key HR message is to judge staff on how they perform in
their role rather than according to personal prejudices," says Keogh.
"In other words – do not allow emotion to colour critical employment
"It also contains the warning that in today’s world, staff who are
unfairly treated by their employer will use the legal process to see redress.
The days of people going quietly no matter how badly they are treated are long
Oscar Schindler arrives in Krakow as a bankrupt German businessman in need of
an enterprise. Looking around the ravaged face of World War Two Poland he sees
a mass of cheap labour in the resident Jewish population.
It is then that he meets Itzhak Stern – a Jewish accountant with rich
friends who are willing to invest in Schindler in return for protection.
With the Nazis systematically destroying the Polish Jews it is a hazardous
course for both sides to embark upon.
Initially, Schindler sees his Jewish workers as simple units of labour who
can turn him into a war profiteer. However, time and the influence of Stern
makes him begin to see the workers as people.
Once converted, Schindler sets about recruiting as many Jewish workers as he
possibly can, all the while treading a dangerous line between legality and
suspicion from the Nazis.
But behind it all lays Stern. Along with finding workers and convincing
Schindler to save them from the Nazi pogroms, he encourages him to build a
munitions factory within a Nazi labour camp and through this saves the lives of
a thousand Jews.
He even convinces Schindler to save Jewish children by explaining that their
small hands are better suited to working certain machines.
Ian Freer, features editor of Empire magazine, says, "I think Stern is
a contributing fact to Shindler treating his workforce as human beings. Stern
clandestinely turns it into a haven for Jews in the ghetto in Krakow by showing
how important they can be – in terms of the little jobs they can do as much as
"I think his conversion actually comes in the scene where he watches
the liquidation of the ghetto by the Nazis. But Stern plays a role in changing
"The office space they share in the concentration camp is very much
Stern trying to set up a factory within the camp. It’s a strange concept to
think that they set up a little HR department in the middle of this
Twenty years after the war, with the benefit of hindsight, the real Oscar
Schindler explained his rescue of the Jews this way, "I knew the people
who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like
HR takes centre stage
Billy Elliot – how, with the right training and support,
people can make it in vocations where their background would normally hold them
24/7 – the lives of teenage
delinquents in the Midlands are changed forever by a boxing club that invests
in their welfare, happiness and skills.
The Sting – Newman and Redford
recruit and train a band of conmen, finding suitable locations and displaying a
fine talent for crisis management.
Resources Humaines – French
film about the effect of the 35-hour week and an HR professional who makes the
mistake of asking workers their opinions.
Secret of My Success – Michael
J Fox assumes an executive position and manages to get HR to hire him a
secretary, office equipment and all the trappings an executive would expect to
Serpico – Al Pacino blows the whistle on police
corruption and is left hanging out to dry by his employers.
Startup.com – documentary
about a dotcom featuring an almost total lack of HR. At one stage a board
director is fired via an anonymous letter.
Dances with Wolves – Kevin
Costner is caught between two roles. In
management speak he eventually sells out but to anyone else he is loyal to his