What The Office, The Devil Wears Prada, Office Space (and more) can tell us about the employee experience, corporate culture, and workplace trends
My mom died when I was 16. This was a pivotal (and traumatic) event in my life and shaped everything that would come after it.
Without much adult guidance, television and movies shaped many life lessons for me. That was especially true when it was time to enter the workplace with zero to little context of workplace culture.
The media shows us glimpses into what’s possible, which can act as cautionary tales or show us what we want to emulate. Whether it was the original “Quiet Quitter” Jim from The Office or “Stapler Guy” from Office Space, iconic shows and movies about the workplace help shape our understanding of the employee experience.
It can also tell us about what’s happening today and the reimagining that’s taking place in the workplace.
In last month’s installment of the monthly Workplace Matters series, we explored the top songs about the workplace. In this installment, we explore the top tv shows and movies about the workplace and what they tell us about the employee experience, workplace culture, trends, and more.
Make sure you check back often or sign up for our newsletter.
Let’s dive into the top 10 workplace movies and tv shows.
Cringey Tales of Leadership, Quiet Quitting, and Engagement
#1 – The Office
- Workplace dynamics
- Emotional intelligence
Years before the term quiet quitting even existed, there was Jim Halpert from The Office.
Jim was a trailblazer in a way!
He is the poster child for doing the bare minimum in the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper distribution company. Jim was more concerned with giggling with his future wife, Pam, pranking Dwight (his work enemy), and making cutesy faces at the faux-documentary cameras.
Today, there are many Jim Halperts, as the number of disengaged employees rose to 18% in 2022.
But Jim Halpert shows us that there is hope for the quiet quitter.
Six seasons in, Jim became friends with Dwight (and was even best man at his wedding). Jim then became co-manager with Michael Scott himself. Perhaps it was Jim’s friendships at work that helped motivate him. Studies show that having a best friend at work is more important than ever.
According to author Amy Gallo, there are eight archetypes of difficult people:
- Passive-aggressive peer
- Biased coworker
- Political operator
- Insecure boss (bringing us to Michael Scott)
Michael is the self-proclaimed “world’s best boss,” who was also the painfully unaware leader at Dunder Mifflin. His insatiable need to be loved clouded every decision he made and led to office-wide shenanigans.
But it would have made for much less interesting television.
Quirky Corporate Culture Meets Unconventional (and Impossible) Side Hustle
#2 – Being John Malkovich
This wacky headtrip of a movie not only masterfully explores themes of identity, it also introduces us to quirky corporate culture at its finest.
In Being John Malkovich, failed puppeteer, Craig Schwartz takes a job at LesterCorp as a file clerk. LesterCorp is located on the 7½ floor of a Manhattan office building. The ceilings are only five feet high.
When Craig asks his eccentric new boss why the ceilings are so low, he is told…wait for it…it’s due to “low overhead.”
Craig has to hunch over to move around a workplace that was not built for him or the other employees. It’s a visual reminder that Craig literally does not fit. When Craig finds a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich (his ultimate puppet) at his office, he turns this into a “side hustle,” thanks to opportunistic love interest, Maxine.
Craig’s isolation and desperation get him in trouble in the film. Many people can relate. Today, 40% of people say they feel isolated at work and the result of that isolation is lower organizational commitment and engagement.
Exploration of Bureaucracy, Work Ethic, and Friendship
#3 – Parks and Recreation
- Work friendship
- Work ethic
- Introverts and extroverts
Who’s a Leslie and who’s a Ron?
Ron, the manager of the office, hates meetings (and most people). And he mentors his grouchy assistant, April, who shares his outlook. Perhaps they are both introverts, who have interesting and complementary skills to extroverts (who have been favored historically).
Leslie, on the other hand, is enthusiastic about everything and everyone. She leads with empathy and is willing to help others. Studies show that leaders who practice empathy will have a more engaged and higher-performing team, as well as a more profitable business overall.
And this team was definitely high-performing in hilarity.
The original work BFFs, Leslie and Tom, kicked off the self-care revolution with their famous days where they would indulge in whatever opulent activity their hearts desired.
Glimpse into the Past Reveals Similarities and Differences to Today
#4 – Mad Men
- Work-life balance
- Mental health
Don Draper is the charismatic, confident main character, flawed but intriguing. He’s running away from his past and making mistakes. Don is a workaholic who tries to drink his problems away. He hides his battle with mental health, but it rears its head in many ways, both personal and professional.
Don’s secretary turned copywriter, Margaret “Peggy” Olson, starts out young, naive, and ambitious, trying to make it in a male-dominated field at a time where women had few choices.
This exploration of workplace culture in the 60s shows the hardships of the time. Still, current studies show that nearly two-thirds of women under 30 say they’d be more eager to advance in their careers if they could see more senior women leaders able to manage work and life in the way they want to.
Domination Leadership in Toxic (Yet Stylish) Culture
- Domination leadership
- Work-life balance
In cold-as-ice fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly’s workplace, employees run when she comes their way. More specifically, they put on painful high-heels to look the part, avoid direct eye contact, catch her coat as she throws it at them, and generally live in fear of her. These chic employees try to anticipate her every need to avoid her wrath.
Sound familiar? Ever had a boss or manager like this or one that made you feel this way?
Culture experts at SweetRush Transforming Leaders & Culture would determine that Miranda’s style is domination leadership versus conscious leadership.
Domination leadership is, “I matter and you don’t.” And this is totally Miranda.
Conscious leadership is, “I matter and YOU matter and WE matter.”
In this film, only Miranda matters, and everyone else in her ecosystem must jump through any hoop and obstacle to please the icy editor. Miranda rules through fear and intimidation and does not foster empathy.
Fish-out-of-water and main character, Andy, is the “everywoman” trying to navigate the dysfunctional, judgemental, and unhealthy environment she finds herself in. She almost loses everything in a bid to win Miranda’s approval.
Ever experience that feeling of trying to win over a Miranda in your life? Not fun.
Ego and Competition Played for Laughs
#6 – Anchorman
- Women in the workplace
- Hostile work environment
In a metaphor for toxic competition, the insane fight in Anchorman shows Ron Burgundy and his fellow news anchors having an all-out physical battle with their competitors.
Their egos are out of control and they will stop at nothing to destroy each other (even if they destroy themselves in the process). This may happen on a more subtle level in some workplaces in the form of workplace politics.
Set in the 70s, Channel 4 is also hostile to its own employees, especially to newcomer Veronica Corningstone, who joins the all-male crew. They try to sabotage and intimidate her to leave but she doesn’t let them bully her.
Fifty years later women are making strides in leadership representation (especially senior leadership) but are now significantly more burned out—and increasingly more so than men.
One in three women has considered leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers due to a myriad of reasons (including the pandemic).
Imposter Syndrome, Mentors, and 90s Fashion
- Imposter syndrome
“I’m right on top of that, Rose!”
This is the phrase that Sue Ellen’s manager, Rose, instructs her to use to let her know she will figure out the tasks Rose needs her to accomplish. Rose takes Sue Ellen under her wing and she ends up somehow excelling in the role.
In a true “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to the workplace of the early 90s, inexperienced teenager Sue Ellen pretends to be an accomplished fashion professional to earn money to support herself and her siblings while her mother is out of town for the summer.
Sue Ellen really understands the teen fashion that she’s put in charge of (maybe because she is a teen herself). While Sue Ellen’s imposter syndrome is understandable because she is, in fact, an imposter, this is something that many high-achieving professionals also deal with.
One study found that up to 87% of an incoming class of medical school students reported a high or very high degree of imposter syndrome.
Lovable Monsters Rebel Against Toxic Values
#8 – Monsters, Inc.
- Mismatch of values
- Toxic corporate culture
- Employee engagement
This family-friendly tale explores two unlikely whistleblowers, work best friends Mike and Sulley. At the Monsters, Incorporated factory, skilled monsters or “scarers” spend their workday scaring children and harvesting their screams through portals to the children’s bedrooms.
Caught up in a sinister plot by their boss, Mr. Waternoose and the corrupt leadership at the company, the monsters have to choose between success at work or the adorable human, Boo, who they are secretly hiding.
It’s no wonder Mike and Sulley stop following protocol and become disengaged employees when they realize their organization is not what they first thought it was (and does not align with their values).
Workplace Dynamics and Leadership Lessons
#9 – 30 Rock
- Workplace dynamics
Showrunner Liz Lemon learned many valuable lessons on leadership and business from her mentor, uber-successful Jack Donaghy.
Liz manages a wacky team of writers and performers (as well as her own personal life, which is often chaotic). Jack provides Liz with his confident, polished, successful perspective. His style of management wasn’t always conventional but the mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationship between Jack and Liz is at the heart of the show.
Their relationship shows the power of reverse mentoring, where senior leaders can learn from the perspectives of those that they are mentoring. A study found that 87% of mentors and mentees feel empowered by their mentoring relationships and have developed greater confidence.
“Looks like Someone Has a Case of the Mondays”
#10 – Office Space
- Finding happiness at work
- Workplace ecosystem
- Corporate politics
- Work-life balance
Is there a more quintessential film about the workplace than Office Space?
Saving the best for last, this classic film should be mandatory viewing upon accepting any office-type job.
A classic tale of burnout, light embezzlement, and corporate ennui, Office Space follows Peter Gibbons as he goes to a hypnotist in an attempt to escape the misery of his office job. When the hypnotist dies in the middle of the session, Peter is never un-hypnotized, so he starts doing exactly what he wants at work. That means rebelling against his boss, Bill Lumbergh, and his requests to work on the weekends (ignoring boundaries and work-life balance).
Peter starts making his own rules and this rebellion translates into brutal honesty and (ironically) success. That’s when the “Bobs” (consultants who are hired to evaluate the employees) take Peter’s brutal honesty to mean that he’s a “straight shooter with upper management written all over him.”
Peter’s new approach works for him, but not his co-workers, especially Milton, who just wants his stapler. Milton does not enforce boundaries (healthy ones, at least).
Both Peter and Milton have unusual ways of finding their voices and sticking up for themselves, which can have detrimental effects. A study conducted with more than 10,000 participants stated that workers who worked three or more hours longer than required had a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems than those who didn’t work overtime.
Life Imitating Art
By reflecting on different scenarios in television and film, we can understand the different environments or personalities that are out there in the workplace. It shows us what we want to create (empathetic, authentic, safe environments) and what we want to avoid (toxic environments).
What tv shows or movies about the workplace are we missing?
And what lessons about the workplace did YOU learn from tv or movies?
Let us know on LinkedIn.
And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter and look out for next month’s installment of Workplace Matters, where we will continue dissecting and discussing what’s going on in the workplace today, mixed with some pop culture.
Thanks for reading and spending some time with me!
Your workplace BFF