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Does Hollywood get HR right?

Here's what we can learn from classic business scenes portrayed in film.

Finding the right talent to star in a movie is apparently tough. Film director Alfred Hitchcock summed up his thoughts on the matter with a pretty straightforward quote: “Walt Disney has the best casting. If he doesn’t like an actor, he just tears him up.”

It’s easy to delete a character from an animated movie. However, when you’re running a business, hiring, inspiring (and sometimes, firing) talent is a much more delicate job. That’s where human resources comes in.

Here’s how HR has been portrayed in five Hollywood films — along with some useful insights as to what actually happens in real life.

1. The job interview

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

If a job interviewer tells you, mid-interview, that “you have no style or sense of fashion,” it’s a bad sign. If that job opening is at a fashion magazine, it’s a train wreck, honey! Since this is a Hollywood movie, Andy (Anne Hathaway) ends up landing the gig anyway, despite making a horrible first impression.

In real life: After a series of experiments, Yale researcher Jason Dana concluded most job interviews are worthless: “The problem with interviews is worse than irrelevance. They can be harmful, undercutting the impact of other, more valuable information about interviewees.”

2. Workplace diversity

Hidden Figures (2016)

When NASA boss Kevin Costner demands to know why mathematician Taraji P. Henson spends so much time away from her desk, she enlightens him on the stark reality of being a black woman in a white male workplace in 1961. “There are no coloured bathrooms in this building,” she informs him. “I have to walk to Timbuktu just to relieve myself.”

IRL: According to Statistics Canada data, more than 20 per cent of visible minority women in Canada say they’ve experienced discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, skin colour or language — and half of those incidences occurred at work or while applying for jobs.

Related: Women in tech: Developing a “code” community

3. Workplace childcare  

Elf (2003)

What could go wrong when a workaholic publishing executive brings his estranged son Buddy to his Manhattan office for a day? A lot, if Buddy is a childlike adult man who was raised as an elf by Santa and has never ventured outside the North Pole before.

IRL: People with small kids (or elfin man-children?) often juggle the demands of work and childcare. StatCan says full-time employees in Canada with at least one preschool age child miss an average of three work days per year due to “personal reasons.” That’s double the number of personal days (1.4) taken by those with older children.

4. Firing

Up in the Air (2009)

Not all of the ‘workers’ fired by George Clooney and Anna Kendrick in this movie are actors. To lend Up in the Air an air of authenticity, Canadian director Jason Reitman cast real-life layoff survivors in a few firing scenes. Some merely reenacted their real-life reactions for the camera. But others sought sweet on-screen revenge, saying all the things to the camera that they wished they’d said when their bosses were firing them.

IRL: Downsizing can take a toll on the remaining coworkers left behind. A 2017 survey found more than a third of sick leaves taken by Canadian employees for physical or mental health reasons occurred after their company had recently done layoffs.

 5. The exit interview

Jerry Maguire (1996)

This is more of an exit rant than an exit interview, since Jerry’s bosses aren’t even asking him why he’s leaving. Instead, like bystanders at a car crash, they watch him march out of the office with one goldfish, one sympathetic secretary (Renee Zellweger’s Dorothy, not shown in this clip) and whatever shred of dignity that might possibly be left. Even if you hated Tom Cruise’s couch jumping, it’s hard not to appreciate his flipping out skills here.

IRL: According to Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of companies that conduct exit interviews never act on the results and less than a third ever share the findings with senior executives who have the power to act on them.


Up Next: Why talent management and corporate culture are vital to successful companies.

Christine Wong

Christine Wong is a journalist based in Toronto who has covered a wide range of startups and technology issues. A former staff writer with, she has also worked as a reporter for the Canadian Economic Press and in broadcast roles at SliceTV and the CBC.

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