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Human Resource Analysis of the Office Space Movie

In: Business and Management

Submitted By sabiboy
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Reframing at the Movies: Office Space
The movie Office Space, examines and critiques various organizational practices in our society. It is a story about work life and the effects of bad management on the morale of the workers. It is set in a high-tech company and the central character is a technical professional in the organization who has no motivation or passion for his job. Pete works at Initech, a software company. His job consists of sitting in a cubicle crunching numbers all day long, which is enough to make anyone go crazy. Office Space depicts an oppressing, unsatisfactory view of the working world in an attempt to demonstrate unhealthy and ineffective practices that many businesses and organizations utilize. While many elements in Office Space are ridiculous and exaggerated, many ring true with experiences shared by anyone who has worked in a managed organization. By presenting the daily horrors that such organizations can create, the film serves as an ideal of what a successful organization ought to avoid.
In the movie, power is extremely centralized at Initech with Bill Lumbergh at the top of the ladder. The employees work in tiny cubicles that block their view of the windows, thereby eliminating outside distractions. The copy machine never works, their supplies (i.e. the staplers) are constantly being replaced with lesser-quality brands, and poor Milton is repeatedly forced to move desks, eventually ending up in the basement alongside the cockroaches. Furthermore, the cubicles are compacted together, so everyone is at the mercy of everyone else’s noisiness. Anyone would be unhappy working in these conditions. As Peter states, “Human beings weren't meant to sit in little cubicles, starring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements.” Peter is forced to come to work on the weekends without prior notice and the upper management relates information to them in a condescending way.
Also, Joanna a waitress at Chotchkie’s, as part of her official uniform, she is required to wear at least fifteen “pieces of flair,” or buttons, on her suspenders. Joanna wears the minimum quota of fifteen because she thinks the idea is “quite stupid actually.” Her boss, Stan, criticizes her for wearing only the bare minimum, asking her why she cannot be more like one the other workers Brian, who “has thirty-seven pieces of flair and a great smile.” When Joanna asks Stan if he wants her to wear more flair, he condescendingly responds, “Look, we want you to express yourself, okay? If you think the bare minimum is enough, then okay. But some people choose to wear more and we encourage that, okay? You do want to express yourself, don't you?” Stan seems to think that the waiters and waitresses should love wearing flair because “it’s about fun.” However, Joanna views it as an unwanted force and an infringement on her personal expression. Later in the movie, Stan approaches Joanna again about wearing the bare minimum, demonstrating that he does not value her personal expression unless it correlates with the restaurant’s views. Joanna finally snaps and gives him the finger, shouting, “There’s my flair! And this is me expressing myself! There it is! I hate this job . . . and I don’t need it!”
Office Space depicts many practices that are associated with the standard approach to organizations. Where employees see themselves as worker bees waiting for instruction from above. While some organizations see individuals as objects to be exploited, others believe that the needs of individuals and organizations can be aligned to form a perfect fit by engaging people’s talent and energy while the organization profits. Organizations need people for their energy, effort and talent. Individuals need organizations for the many rewards they offer. But the needs of the individual and the organization don’t always line up very well and when the fit between people and organizations is poor, one or both will suffer. Human resource frame evolved from early work of pioneers such as Mary Parker Follett (1918) and Elton Mayo (1933, 1945), who questioned a century old, deeply held assumption that workers had no rights beyond a paycheck. Their duty was to work hard and follow orders. Pioneers who laid the human resource frame’s foundation criticized this view on two grounds: it was unfair, and it was bad psychology. People's skills, attitudes, energy, and commitment are vital resources that can make or break an enterprise, they argued. One of the core assumptions of the human resource frame states that when the fit between individual and system is poor, one or both suffer. Individuals are exploited or exploit the organization or both become victims. The “fit” is a function of at least three different things: how well an organization responds to individual desires for useful work; how well jobs enable employees to express their skills and sense of self; and how well work fulfills individual financial and lifestyle needs (Cable and DeRue, 2002).

At Initech, Bill Lumbergh is the Vice President of the organization and he is a greedy, overbearing authoritarian and abuses his power in many ways. He has his own reserved parking spot right in front of the building, he forces Peter to come in to work on the weekends, and he is very condescending to his employees. Others in high positions within the company are also condescending. For example, when Peter forgets to put coversheets on his TBS reports, Lumbergh and a couple of his other bosses talk to him like he is stupid, asking if he “got the memo.” Communication, like authority, comes from the top-down, and any communicative misunderstanding is seen as the employees fault, in this case Peter’s. The upper management at Initech do not see the workers as individuals who are worth knowing. For example, when Nina hands out papers to everyone, she cannot pronounce Peter’s friend Samir’s name, which shows that those higher up in the company have not made an effort to know the employees, even when it comes to something as basic as name pronunciation. Having people constantly mispronounce his name, Samir does not feel like a valued part of the organization. In accordance with the machine metaphor, he is simply viewed as a disposable part, no different from anyone else at the office. Individuals do not matter at Initech, which is most plainly seen by the banner hanging in the office which reads “Is this good for the company?” which employees must ask themselves before making any decisions. Initech values efficiency more than anything else and even brings in outside consultants to help make the company more efficient. The typical notion of replaceability is evident in the film. The outside consultants, Bob and Bob, evaluate worker productivity, which results in the firing of many workers, including Peter’s friends Michael and Samir. The consultants explain that they are bringing in entry-level workers from Singapore to replace them, which indicates that anyone, even recent college graduates, can perform the job. Workers at Initech are simply interchangeable cogs in a machine. Frederick Herzberg in his study (1966) asked employees about their best and worst work experiences. “Good feelings” stories featured achievement, recognition, responsibility, advancement, and learning; Herzberg called these motivators. “Bad feelings” stories clustered around company policy and administration, supervision, and working conditions; Herzberg labeled these hygiene factors. Motivators dealt mostly with work itself; hygiene factors bunched up around the work context. Attempts to motivate workers with better pay and fringe benefits, improved conditions, communications programs, or human relations training missed the point, said Herzberg. He saw job enrichment as central to motivation, but distinguished it from simply adding more dull tasks to a tedious job. Enrichment meant giving workers more freedom and authority, more feedback, and greater challenges. If both sets of characteristics are present, then workers are happy and satisfied. If they are absent, workers are unhappy and unsatisfied. Most of these characteristics are absent at Initech, which suggests that Initech workers are neither happy nor satisfied with their jobs. The primary reason they are unhappy and dissatisfied is lack of motivation. Peter tells the Bobs, “If I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units, I don’t see another dime. So where’s the motivation?”
Because workers at Initech do not receive good benefits or see the profit of their hard work, they do not feel achievement or recognition. Their work is not challenging which, in turn, makes it uninteresting. Furthermore, Initech employees have no means for self-actualization. They are not encouraged or allowed to reach their full potential, which is the most important workplace need according to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. Employees at Initech are required to do only the bare minimum to get the job done. When the consultants, Bob and Bob, met with all of the employees, many of them cannot even explain what their job entails. When Tom tries to explain his job, he reveals that most of his “customer interaction” takes place via the fax machine or his secretary. Peter tells them that he only works fifteen minutes out of the day, while the rest is spent staring blankly at the computer screen. The only thing that motivates him to do his job is to stay in the good graces of the upper management, who would otherwise make his life difficult. Peter tells the Bobs, “When I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That’s my real motivation, is not to be hassled.” The employees’ concerns are completely disregarded. Lumbergh ignores Milton’s adamant protests about having to constantly move desks and about taking his prized stapler away. The lack of concern that Lumbergh and the other higher-ups have for their employees is constantly reinforced in the film.
Initech operates according to McGregor’s Theory X. In this theory, managers see their workers as passive and lazy, have little ambition, prefer to be led, and resist change. In McGregor’s Theory Y, on the other hand, the essential task of management is to arrange conditions so that people can achieve their own goals best by directing efforts towards organizational rewards. Theory X relates to the typical approach to management, while Theory Y relates to the human relations approach and is, therefore, more desirable in the workplace. Lumbergh designates Friday as “Hawaiian Shirt Day,” allowing the workers to wear Hawaiian shirts and jeans in place of their typical business attire. He also holds a birthday party in the office (for himself of course) and lets all the workers take a break to have some cake, although there are not enough pieces for everyone. Lumbergh and the other higher-ups act concerned for the employees and feign cheerful expressions, but one can easily see through this charade. Lumbergh’s motivation behind these actions is pathetic and completely insincere.
Furthermore, Initech does not operate in an ethical manner. Rather than engaging in dialogic communication, which is “open, centralized, and values the perspective of all employees and facilitates their ability to voice their opinions and concerns”, Initech operates using monologic communication. This form of communication “limits candor, fosters secrecy, and manages communication and information in a top-down manner”. In monologic communication, communication is highly centralized, and workers never know nor understand decisions that are made by those in authoritative positions. Many see this practice as unethical because decisions are hidden from the employees. Initech makes all of its decisions without the knowledge or input from its workers. For example, the consultants, Bob and Bob, discover that Milton was laid off five years ago but no one ever told him. He thinks that he still works at Initech because he is still getting paid due to a glitch in the payroll. The Bobs fix the payroll problem so that Milton will no longer be paid. However, they refuse to actually tell him that he has been fired. Instead, they plan to let him make the connection that because he is no longer getting his paycheck, then he must have been laid off. One of the Bobs states, “We always like to avoid confrontation whenever possible.” This approach to firing employees is completely unethical. The Bobs even laugh and joke about the various employees that they are “letting go,” illustrating once again the lack of care or concern they have for these workers. Furthermore, the lack of disclosure creates a lot of paranoia among the employees. Many of them constantly fear that they will be fired. This fear is not unfounded due to the constant changes that take place within the company. As May points out, “the old social contract, which guaranteed or implied lifetime employment in exchange for employee competence and good behavior, has expired”. No matter how good of a job Initech employees do, there is no assurance that they will keep their jobs. One of the workers in the film, Tom, is especially worried that he will be fired. At one point, Michael says to him, “Tom, every week you say you’re losing your job and you’re still here.” While he does ultimately lose his job, the paranoia he feels up until that point causes undue stress in his life which prevents him from performing well. Furthermore, when he is finally fired, he tries to kill himself, which illustrates the unhealthy nature of Initech’s environment.
Initech as an organization can make things better by first developing and implementing an HR philosophy for managing people. For example, they didn’t even know that Milton had been fired for over 5years. If they had an HR strategy in place this will not have gone unnoticed. Secondly, keeping the employees by rewarding them well, promoting from within, protecting their jobs and sharing the wealth. Samir and Michael will not have cosigned the plot to steal from Initech if they were valued and rewarded well for their hard work. Thirdly, empowering the employees by providing information and support, encouraging autonomy and participation in the decision making process in the organization, redesign work in a way that it would not just be about crunching numbers all day and staring at the computer
In Office Space, Peter realizes that he and the other employees are being treated unfairly and he organizes a revolution. In a powerful act of defiance, he knocks down his cubicle wall so he can see out the window. He stops coming in to work and even plans to siphon money from Initech along with Michael and Samir so they will become rich and no longer have to work for the “evil corporation.” Milton takes a different approach and burns the building down, thus emancipating everyone from the terrors of Initech. While this is an extreme act, it symbolizes the disastrous results that come from oppressing one’s workers and not feeling concern for their well-being.
The ideal organizational approaches are: high concern for employee satisfaction and the value of employee input, decentralization of authority and communication, team management, and ethical practices. Office Space does not portray any of these methods, which indicates that Initech is not a good company. It is certainly not the type of company that I would want to work for. The employees are so dissatisfied that they must resort to extreme measures such as stealing money or burning down the company building. Honestly, I cannot say that I blame any of them. Office Space is a great vehicle for examining organizational techniques that ultimately lead to the disintegration of the organization. Office Space may exaggerate the conditions of a classical organization, but the message is still very applicable.

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