Popular TV and Films Love to Hate HR

TV shows and movies often depict HR professionals as heartless, weak and inept.

By Dana Wilkie Apr 21, 2017
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Let’s consider Ryan Bingham, the character played by George Clooney in the 2009 movie “Up in the Air.” Ryan was brisk, chilly and heartless as a corporate “downsizer” who oversaw numerous layoffs. Moreover, he taught his young mentee, played by Anna Kendrick, to be just like him.

Ouch. Not a ringing endorsement for the HR profession, is it?

TV shows and movies are notorious for portraying journalists as sloppy hacks and lawyers as slimy, ambulance-chasing opportunists. The HR profession isn’t immune to unflattering portrayals either. In recent years, the popular media have routinely depicted HR managers and consultants as villainous, frosty, conniving, deceptive, ineffectual and bumbling.

“In general, HR professionals are not positively portrayed in the media, as there is a general distrust of their role and a perception by the general public that HR is an advocate for the company and not the staff,” said Michelle E. Phillips, a principal in the White Plains, N.Y., office of Jackson Lewis. “They are also perceived as not adding to the bottom line but, rather, acting as a cost center with limited return.”

In 2016, Fox reportedly looked into producing a pilot for a new TV comedy tentatively titled "HR," in which actress Judy Greer would play an HR director for a plastics molding plant who must negotiate all the typical HR headaches—from feeling overworked and underappreciated to navigating the rocky ground between her demanding CEO and rank-and-file workers. The fate of that project is unknown, and perhaps further muddled with reports of a pilot for another comedy titled "Linda From HR" in the works. 

HR as Villain

In “The Office,” the 2005-2013 NBC sitcom about a paper supply company in Scranton, Pa., regional manager Michael Scott (played by Steve Carell) regularly bumped heads with HR manager Toby Flenderson (played by Paul Lieberstein). Michael didn’t like Toby because the latter was in charge of enforcing company policies, and this particular office was rife with inappropriate behavior. 

“It is one of the worst portrayals of an HR manager,” Phillips said. “Toby is ineffectual and weak and is not able to curb Michael. Toby can’t stop Michael's clear favoritism of certain employees, nor is Toby able to effectively communicate with other staff.”

On ABC’s “The Drew Carey Show,” which ran from 1995-2004, actor Drew Carey played the lead, an HR manager of a department store. He was continually portrayed as a lovable loser. In addition, his character married his boss on the show—a move many real-life HR departments might discourage.

HR’s Other Roles 

There have, on the other hand, been TV shows that depicted HR managers as sane, principled characters. For instance, in CBS’s sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” Janine Davis (played by Regina King) was a capable HR administrator who had to deal with employees prone to saying and doing outrageous things at work. She made appearances on the show from 2013-2014.

“There was plenty of humor in this,” said Marc Berman, editor-in-chief for Programming Insider, a website that provides ratings, reviews and news about TV shows and other media. “The actress is dealing with [employees] who are kooks. Every time they dealt with her, they were afraid to say anything because she was in HR.”

Berman noted that King’s character and situations were popular enough for her to be featured on the show several times. “If it hadn’t worked out, they wouldn’t have had her come back,” Berman said. 

And let’s not forget “Mad Men,” the AMC show set in the 1960s that frequently portrayed men as leering, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking corporate bosses and women as their buxom, romantic toys. The show gave us an example of what workplaces can look like without an HR department to enforce policies against sexist behavior and drinking alcohol on the job.

The show “never had an HR professional, so it’s not surprising that there were so many HR issues on ‘Mad Men,’ ” said Jonathan A. Segal, a partner at Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City.

“Mad Men” notwithstanding, any time HR is portrayed in the popular media, the profession is thrown up for public scrutiny.   

No matter how the [HR] person is portrayed, the fact that HR is the focus of a TV show highlights the importance of and interest in the role,” Segal said. “But the shows come with risks for HR professionals. Employees may compare their HR professional with the HR professional on TV. If the HR professional on TV is portrayed well, you don't want employees saying ‘I wish he or she were mine.’ If the HR professional on TV is portrayed as incompetent, you don't want employees saying ‘Mine, too.’ ”

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