A look to Hollywood for benefits lessons

Jenny Keefe looks to Tinseltown and discovers that benefits managers could learn a trick or two from big screen blockbusters

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Cops, cowboys, geishas and western singers: all are occupations that have recently been given the big-screen treatment. Even IT managers have recently been the focus of a Channel 4 series, with The IT Crowd. The noble HR profession, on the other hand, rarely gets the starring roll – or does it?

Considering the proportion of our lives that is spent at work, it’s unsurprising that film-makers should draw some of their inspiration from the workplace. Look closer, and many movies explore HR and benefits topics. Indeed, from science fiction to romantic comedies, films are tackling subjects as diverse as pensions, motivation and flexible working arrangements.

So, the next time you want to brush up on the latest HR trends, rather than ploughing though dry textbooks, dust off your Blockbuster movie rental card and see what tips you can pick up from Hollywood.

Two Weeks Notice

2002; USA; Stars: Hugh Grant, Sandra Bullock; Director: Marc Lawrence

Sandra Bullock stars in this romantic comedy as Lucy Kelson, a smart and idealistic Harvard lawyer working in legal aid. Despite her desire to change the world, millionaire George Wade (Hugh Grant) persuades Lucy to accept a job at his property company, promising that she can run the firm’s pro bono programme.

Yet, a year later Lucy is unhappy. The nice Christmas bonus and excellent healthcare plan offer little or no incentive. The firm doesn’t share her social and environmental values, so she hands in her notice.

Hollywood fluff it may be, but Two Weeks Notice picks up on a growing employment trend. Today’s graduates often put an employer’s ethical and social responsibilities above its pay and reward package. Indeed, Mori’s The public’s attitude to corporate responsibility 2004 research found that employers’ corporate social responsibility (CSR) is important to nine-in-10 workers.

Tracy Maxted, HR manager at organic wholesalers Abel & Cole, confirms that employees are increasingly concerned about organisations’ CSR credentials. "I’ve worked in the organic industry for 15 years and there’s definitely an interest for people from all walks of life to drop out of the rat race and into a feel-good environment – even if it means less money and status," she says.

Bullock’s liberal lawyer would feel right at home at Abel & Cole as the company offers a plethora of green perks. Every employee receives a quarterly £300 bonus if the company cuts waste by certain margins. There is a strict no suits policy and each day employees take turns to cook lunch for everyone else using organic ingredients.

"There is great potential for experienced and capable people to help grow worthy businesses," says Maxted.

About Schmidt

2002;USA; Stars:Jack Nicholson; Director: Alexander Payne

About Schmidt starts with 66-year-old Warren Schmidt’s (Jack Nicholson) last day before retiring as a vice president of an insurance company. After dedicating decades to the organisation, his reward is a pointless retirement dinner and a tacky gift. One day he’s running a company, the next he wakes up with nothing to do except for the crossword. When Schmidt pays a trip to see if his young successor needs any pointers, he’s patronised and brushed aside.

The film paints a gloomy picture of retirement. UK employers, however, are beginning to realise that consigning workers to the scrapheap the day they turn 65 makes poor business sense. Chris Ashdown, policy manager at the Age Partnership Group, a DWP-funded partnership of employers, trade unions and pensions organisations, says: "If an older member of staff wants to continue working beyond an organisation’s normal retirement age and they are good enough to do so, they should be given that opportunity."

Under the new pensions regime which comes into force this month, staff will be able to work and draw their pension at the same time. This means more workers will retire gradually. Aside from the obvious option of working part-time, there are a number of others ways to retire gradually, including job sharing, temporary work and call-down contracts to cover holidays, sickness or busy periods. Schmidt’s shock may be in the past.

"Nobody’s talking about forcing employers to retain everyone indefinitely or forcing older people to continue working. It’s all about flexibility and choice throughout all stages of the employment process – recruitment, selection, promotion. Age should never be an issue," says Ashdown.

He adds that it may lead to lower staff turnover, higher morale, a larger recruitment pool and a workforce that reflects wider customer and community bases.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

1983;USA; Director: George Lucas

In this, the sixth and final episode in the Star Wars series, and the last in the original trilogy, the rebel alliance faces its biggest threat yet: the Evil Empire is building a new armoured space station, even bigger and deadlier than the Death Star. The station, however, is only half built and Darth Vader needs to step up storm trooper productivity and put them back on schedule.

He pays a visit to shaking middle manager Jerjerrod who assures him that his men are working as fast as they can and that he needs more staff. Darth Vader, still displeased with the apparent lack of progress, warns him that the Emperor is coming. After Jerjerrod promises to double his efforts, Vader concludes ominously with: "I hope so, Commander, for your sake. The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am".

Professor Chris Clegg of the University of Sheffield’s Institute of Work Psychology, warns employers to be wary of copying Vader’s motivational model. "People transmit onwards what they are subjected to. It’s hard to be participative and reasonable downwards when subjected to severe threats from one’s own boss."

He adds that Vader has unrealistic expectations. "Targets do need to seem fair and achievable to motivate people. If they’re not and the atmosphere is threatening, then we get game playing, buck passing and scapegoating, in the hope that someone else will get the blame. Perhaps the only good thing about having Darth Vader for a boss would be that you would know where you stood."

So when building your own empire, Clegg recommends embracing the forces of light. "There are better ways of managing projects filled with uncertainties," he adds.

Fun with Dick and Jane

2005; USA; Stars: Jim Carrey, Tea Leoni; Director: Dean Parisot

Pensions and comedy are two words that usually sit uneasily in the same sentence. But a comedy about personal finance is exactly what Fun with Dick and Jane is. Jim Carrey plays a high-flying marketing manager who loses everything when his employer Globodyne collapses amid an Enron-type financial scandal.

Dick and his wife are used to a comfortable suburban existence, with all the benefits of working for a mega corporation. But with their savings and pensions tied up in now worthless Globodyne stock, they’re left destitute. The couple resort to robbing banks (with water pistols of course, no-one gets hurt) to recoup their cash. Their final target is Alec Baldwin’s book-cooking CEO and (plot spoiler coming) they trick him into plugging Globodyne employees’ depleted pension fund with his own cash.

So what would happen if a UK pension scheme went bust under similar circumstances? Richard Leigh, an associate at TLC Solicitors, says the liabilities of such a scheme would not fall on the new Pension Protection Fund (PPF). "The PPF is not actually intended to operate where there has been fraud. In that case, the Fraud Compensation Fund (FCF) takes over, although it’s run by the same people."

It is hoped that, under the new system, victims are unlikely to be driven to petty crime. "Where a company has gone bust, the FCF will generally replace any assets lost through fraud, so members’ benefits will not necessarily be capped," he says.

Like the PPF, employers will pay a levy for this fund, although nothing has been collected yet. Leigh adds neither the FCF nor its predecessor the Pensions Compensation Board have ever paid out. "It was, of course, set up too late for Maxwell, but many of his companies survived, so it may not have helped them anyway," he says.

The Shining

1980; USA; Stars: Jack Nicholson; Director: Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick made his blood-chilling horror movie The Shining in 1980: well before the days of high-speed broadband and MSN Messenger. Nevertheless, the film could be taken as a real warning about how working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Its anti-hero Jack Torrance applies for the post of winter caretaker at the out-of-season Overlook Hotel, Colorado. Holed up in the snowbound mountains, he hopes to be more productive, get some writing done and spend more time with his wife and son. Yet his work-life balance dream quickly turns to dust and he gets a serious dose of writers’ block. By the end of the movie, Jack goes mad and turns on his family.

Now, not all homeworking results in madness of the "Heeeeeeeere’s Johnny" variety (let’s assume that your employees’ homes aren’t haunted or built over Native Indian burial grounds), yet there are pitfalls to beware of. Jo Causon, director of corporate affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, says there are steps staff can take to avoid cabin fever." Don’t leave homeworkers isolated. Find ways of motivating and providing social contact for people whose job involves little interaction.

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"Remote working presents a management challenge and you’ve got to achieve a balance between face-to-face and other communication. It is essential that managers hold regular meetings with remote workers and keep them informed." She advises employers to contact homeworkers at least once a day.

A survey by broadband company Pipex last year found that one-in-four Britons are considering working from home. But Causon says that firms should not assume everyone would jump at the chance to do so because it simply won’t suit every personality type.