‘Office Christmas Party’ Is HR’s Worst Nightmare

Directors tell SHRM that despite stereotypes, HR pros should like the film

By Forrest Hartman December 9, 2016

​Kate McKinnon, Jason Bateman, T.J. Miller and Olivia Munn star in the R-rated "Office Christmas Party."

As the branch manager crashes down the stairs on a sled, employees watch in awe. On the dance floor, the head of IT cozies up to his, um, inappropriate date. The snow machine—meant to add festive charm—instead pumps out a white dust that inspires a client to take a Tarzan swing from the holiday lights.

It's an HR professional's worst nightmare.

It's also the setup for "Office Christmas Party," an R-rated holiday comedy opening Dec. 9 that sets its sights on corporate life and HR. Kate McKinnon of "Saturday Night Live" plays the HR director.

In an interview with SHRM Online, co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck, who directed the 2007 comedy "Blades of Glory," said they researched HR and corporate life for "Office Christmas Party." The film targets company-sponsored holiday celebrations, those oddly uncomfortable shindigs that blur the line between work and fun.

"The office Christmas party is such a charged night," Gordon said. "Most people that work in an office spend the better part of their year working with people. They probably spend more time with them than with their own families, and yet they never really quite get to know who they are. And then one night, kind of lubricated by alcohol, they're forced to interact with each other. In a lot of ways, it's the one night a year that they live honestly with each other, and it's charged, it's dangerous. To us, that was a really ripe area to set a comedy."

Gordon and Speck's movie gets plenty crazy, delivering the kind of celebration that would leave real HR folks fighting legal battles for years.

[SHRM members-only resource: Share Your Office Party Nightmares on SHRM Connect]

In the film, the branch manager of a struggling tech firm (played by T.J. Miller) tries to prevent job cuts by winning a huge contract. His plan? Wow the client with a raging holiday party that underscores how special his company's culture is. 

This leads to behavior ranging from jousting matches fought with flaming Christmas trees to an orgy in the company bathroom—but Speck doesn't think these screen depictions will bother real HR professionals. 

"I think they're going to have a blast," he said, "because I think there's nothing more relaxing than watching a train wreck happen, knowing that it's not yours."

The face of HR in the film is Mary Winetoss, a spunky but sensible professional played with verve by McKinnon. The cast also includes Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman and Olivia Munn. Gordon and Speck said they were drawn to McKinnon by her work on "SNL" portraying Hillary Clinton. 

"We always loved her," Speck said. "Even in sketches where she had just a moment, she would create a whole world around her character."

Although Mary starts as a corporate taskmaster, protecting company interests at every turn, she moves beyond the typically stuffy HR portrayal. McKinnon said her character takes HR very seriously, her primary goal being to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

"When we first meet Mary, she's pretty buttoned up," McKinnon said in the film's production notes. "As the night rolls on, she gets some encouragement from her co-workers and goes to some interesting places."

Although Mary ends up doing things that a serious professional would avoid at all costs, Speck and Gordon think HR professionals will love her character.

"She's a very seminal, funny character in the movie," Gordon said. "I think HR people will definitely put her picture up in their offices going forward."

Hollywood Loves HR Stereotypes

Cassandra Pratt, director of human resources and recruiting for the health care firm Progyny, located in New York City, said she thinks it's good when HR professionals are portrayed on screen but that she wishes filmmakers would sometimes move beyond stereotypes.

"HR has gotten a bad rap in the past," she said. "It's becoming more of a strategic partner to different areas of business and to the executive team. So it would be great if that change was shown more frequently than the old policing idea."

Pratt understands, however, that it's easier to find humor in stereotypes, and she sees the potential for laughs in the holiday party environment.

Sharlyn Lauby, SHRM-SCP, a blogger, speaker and author of a new book, Manager Onboarding: 5 Steps for Setting New Leaders Up for Success (SHRM, 2016), told SHRM Online by e-mail that she isn't concerned about how HR workers are represented in the film because she thinks people evaluate professions based on real-life experiences, not movie portrayals.

"When you see the HR profession on film or TV, you're usually only seeing a piece of the job," said Lauby, who created the blog HR Bartender and is president of ITM Group Inc., a Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based HR consulting firm. "In the case of this movie, I assume they're showing the 'You can't make this stuff up' piece. And that's okay—because on some level, it's a part of being in HR. But I imagine this film is exaggerating that part of the job to get a laugh."

Speck and Gordon's movie does exaggerate, but—as experienced HR professionals know—holiday parties come with potential problems.  

"I have been talking for years about the ways to prepare for and manage your office party, in addition to having to deal with the results of office parties gone wrong," said David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc., a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm based in Norwalk, Conn.

Because Lewis is often asked to step in and investigate after party mishaps, he knows firsthand how much material the filmmakers had to work with.

"I've seen, certainly, my fair share of employees who have gotten way too drunk at these things," Lewis said.

"I've seen employees get in fights with the HR person who is holding their keys and refusing to give them back because they don't want the individual to drive home inebriated. I have been in meetings with employees who have found themselves in a situation where a co-worker decided to confess their love or attraction … at one of these events. … I've seen employees get physical with one another on a consensual basis at these events in front of other employees, which has all sorts of potential ramifications."

Although "Office Christmas Party" is fiction, Speck and Gordon said they listened to many real-life stories while the movie was in development.

"It's amazing when you say you're doing a movie about an office Christmas party how many stories come out of the woodwork," Gordon said. "Everybody who worked on this movie, I think, became a sponge for stories they had heard or imagined."

Forrest Hartman, a former film critic for Gannett News Service at USA Today and the Reno-Gazette Journal, is a freelance film and entertainment writer and a journalism professor at California State University, Chico.

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