How Layoffs Have Evolved: From “Office Space” to “Up In The Air”

by cv harquail on January 25, 2010

In the decade since its release, the movie Office Space has dramatized the corporate best of work-life dystopia.

In Office Space, we’ve got the Lumberg, the red stapler, the TPS Reports, a bad case of the Mondays, a little flair, and of course, “the Bobs”. Oh, the Bobs, those clueless, bumbling, omniscient consultants from corporate who come in to do a little downsizing.

Such innocent times, when we thought Office Space was a cynical view of the corporate world, and we laughed.

Now, we have another cinematic view of corporate reality: Up In The Air.

Up In The Air is not actually cynical- it’s realistic. Up In The Air shows us something very real about employer-employee relationships. And it’s a reality that’s neither funny nor easy to watch.

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Up In The Air: Corporatized Layoffs

If you’ve seen Up In The Air, you’ve seen the latest version of corporatized layoffs. Corporatized layoffs take the humanity out of human resource management.

A lot has changed in the ten years since the Bobs demonstrated state-of-the-art termination practices. Back in Office Space, the Bobs came over form HR to analyze work flow and to hold the managers’ hands while they executed the lay offs of their employees and colleagues.

Now, in Up In The Air, the layoff process has been outsourced to the specialist-for-hire, Ryan Bingham, a “termination engineer”.

New Realities of Corporatized Layoffs, as seen in Up In The Air.

Up In The Air dramatizes for us 6 new realities of the layoff process.

1. Layoffs are so common that they have spawned their own growth industry, complete with skilled, well-paid termination experts.

Bingham doesn’t just lay people off. Rather, he’s a “termination engineer“. A specialist. In a well-cut suit and a silk tie from the “Shoppes at Terminal C”. Unlike the belt-and-suspenders dorkiness of the Bobs, Bingham is real business class talent — smooth and skilled as he wields the hatchet.

Who knew we’d gotten so good at this, at the act of telling employees we don’t want them anymore?

2. Organizations and their managers have deftly insulated themselves from the unpleasant experience of laying people off. This insulation allows these organizations to be genuinely fake, to say one thing and do another without any ambivalence or embarrassment.

By outsourcing their termination practice to a consultancy, the organization removes any manager or corporate representative from the process. There is no one from the company who has to explain the decision to the ex-employee, and no one from the company to take responsibility for the layoff decisions.

Structurally, Bingham, is insulated from any responsibility for these axed employees. He didn’t create the problems that lead to the layoffs or make the choices about whom to lay off. Emotionally, Bingham is also insulated. He shares no common culture, no corporate history, no personal relationship with the people losing their jobs. He has no reason at all (apart from some basic humanity) to feel guilty or conflicted about what he is there to do.

This structural and psychic distance make it possible for Bingham to be genuinely fake. For all those the platitudes, Bingham really means what he says. And he also doesn’t mean what he says, because no part of the experience actually touches him.

Similarly, the structural set up prevents the organization and its managers even from seeing the damage that their behavior is causing. The organization and its managers are free to claim that they care about employees while laying them off.

3. In corporatized layoffs, no one can hear you scream.

No one is there to listen, no one is there to learn, and no one is there to care. Just like at the organization’s outsourced customer service center,  hired hands run the script and pretend to listen, while valid questions and complaints slide off them, never  to be heard by anyone who actually matters.

The outsourcing of layoff responsibility makes it easy for everyone — or almost everyone– to be dispassionate about cutting the relationship between the organization and its employees. It’s almost as though the emotional labor of dumping a loyal employee just evaporates into the space between the organization, the contractor, and the soon-to-be-ex employee.

The emotional burden of the organization’s decision remains for the employee to bear alone.

4. There is no room for truth in the corporatized layoff process.

Without a real manager to talk with, or to answer questions, or to show remorse, the real meaning of the layoff to the employee and to the organization is squeezed out.

As the hired henchman, Bingham also helps to crowd the truth out of of the situation. He encourages the terminated employees to rebuild their lives, with platitudes such as:

“Anyone who has ever accomplished great things has done so because they once sat in the same chair you are sitting in now”.

Right. That encouragement and a few months of unemployment checks will get me my own Subway franchise, and I’ll soon be an entrepreneur.

The organization sustains the fantasy that they have done the right thing– after all, they hired the best termination engineers. They put together a nice termination package. They have handled it all professionally. (All of it except maybe for the bad business decisions that got the organization in trouble in the first place, recession aside.)

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5. Oddly, too, the organizations and their managers are oblivious to the larger pattern that they are participating in.

While Bingham sees himself as a cog in the machine, he doesn’t seem to realize that the machine is coming to get him too. If Bingham’s own firm shifts to online hatchet delivery, he might soon find himself in a downsized job, one with less autonomy and reduced pay. And, the efficiencies of new technology could leave Bingham as the person whose position is “no longer available”.

On the organizations’ part, being able to turn a blind eye to their own culpability and to avoid experiencing the emotional burden of laying off one employee after another just makes it easier for them to decide to lay more employees off the next time.

Fundamental Reality: One element of layoffs that hasn’t changed

In any layoff situation, one reality is always laid bare: The relationship between the employer and the employee is profoundly one-sided.

We saw this asymmetry in Office Space, but the new realities of layoffs make this harder for us to avoid. And, in Up In The Air, we see this asymmetry and the pain it causes in an artful new way — through the disappointing dynamics of the relationship between the characters themselves.  You’ve got the flaky commitment from Bingham’s supposed-to-be-brother-in-law, and the breakup note emailed to Bingham’s young colleague. 

See how the dynamics of the employee — employer relationship are reflected in this exchange between Ryan (playing the employee) and his suddenly-put-upon gal-pal, Alex Goran (playing the employer) as she prepares to dump him:

Ryan Bingham: I thought I was a part of your life.
Alex Goran
: I thought we signed up for the same thing… I thought our relationship was perfectly clear. … You’re a parenthesis.
Ryan Bingham
: I’m a parenthesis?

Regardless of the promises implied to the employee and the commitment enticed from the employee, nothing that employee has done can protect him from being dumped, at will, by the employer. All of the power is on the employer’s side, no matter how charming, how professional, how skilled the employee is, or how much he has invested in the relationship.

Not even George Clooney can smooth over this reality.

Fiction and or Reality

Now, I’m sure someone’s going to jump in to remind us all that Up In The Air is fiction.

Of course it is. There are organizations that avoid layoffs and take responsibility. There are organizations that lay employees off with not only remorse but also regret. Corporations don’t really lay people off so harshly. And hatchet men like Bingham don’t actually exist.

Yet, like all good fiction, Up In The Air tells us an important truth:

The relationship between the employer and the employee is profoundly one-sided.
In this relationship, the employee always has more to lose.

We can’t dismiss this truth as cinematic cynicism, and we can’t laugh at it either.

See also:
Bringing ‘Up in the Air’ down to earth
by Kathleen Pender
“Up in the Air,” Work+Life Fit Allegory for the Era
by Cali Yost at Fast Company

{ 3 comments }

Ian Ayres January 25, 2010 at 9:37 am

“Up in the Air” also picks up on the trend toward increasingly centralized scripting of worker behavior. And once a behavior is scripted, it is easier to do at a distance. Call center workers have contingent scripts pop up on their screen. Even teachers who use “Direct Instruction” have scripted teaching plans. So it was interesting to see the young turk try to write a contingent script for firing.

[spoiler alert]

The movie’s excuse for saying that the scripted approach couldn’t handle the risk of suicide isn’t really plausible (or at least wasn’t well established). One of the things a centralized system can do better is to keep track of (and follow up with)people who raise suicide red flags..

Joseph Logan January 25, 2010 at 1:06 pm

“Up in the Air” is barely fiction. I was becoming Bingham in Europe, which is one of the top reasons I left pharma last year, although I was never as masterful as in the scene in which Clooney encourages the guy to go to chef school. Make no mistake–for better or for worse, we are getting very good at this.
.-= Joseph Logan´s last blog ..Outsourcing NASA could be, you know, dangerous =-.

cv harquail January 26, 2010 at 7:43 am

Hi Ian-

The scripting of behavior is also understood as the incursion of ‘scientific management’ practices into interpersonal interaction. No better way to deaden an employee’s engagement than to tie him/her to a script. Funny, though, the move towards social media use within organizations goes directly counter to that scripting trend, since the ad hoc-y ness of convo on these media make it impossible to script, and also b/c the demands of creating a social presence in online comms make scriptiness ineffective.

Hey Joseph-

You make me think that maybe Bingham’s work role was portrayed a little too ideally– since it is a rare person who can make that kind of empathic connection to a person’s hidden/obscured passion and bring that forward in a termination conversation. But I also laughed (smirked?) at that part in the movie b/c it was similarly fantastical— given the celebrification of cooking. But it’s fiction. I keep reminding myself of that.

No wonder you came back Stateside — and glad that the strategy consulting is more soul-nurturing.

Thanks so much guys for sharing your comments-
cvh

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