“Third prize is you’re fired!” snaps Alec Baldwin in a bitter (and almost literal) punchline aimed at a cowering sales team. Baldwin’s character in 1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross is a bad boss who makes already devalued employees feel even worse—a plot line that seems central to Hollywood’s depictions of rotten workplaces.
Films like Glengarry Glen Ross, 9 to 5, Office Space, and The Devil Wears Prada have become cult sensations because they reflect the working lives of millions of us. Three out of four working Americans have had a toxic boss, according to a recent Monster® survey.
Bad bosses (who beget bad offices) are great fodder for Hollywood humor and horror, but they can also teach us about healing our real-life workplace cultures. Here are seven of the worst offices ever to hit the silver screen and the culture lessons we can learn from them.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Like its 1987 predecessor Wall Street, this film is all about how greed is good—until it isn’t. Both Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort play fast and loose with the law to fatten their wallets, but the Wolf wins the worst office award for dragging Belfort’s entire office into a culture of sex, drugs, and penny stock swindles that defrauded real-life investors out of an estimated $110 million. Of course, it ended badly, with the drug-addicted Belfort tanking his whole company and landing in jail when his scheme—like the fictional Gekko’s—was exposed.
It’s bad enough when you hire “a bad seed,” but when that person controls the flow of employees in and out of the organization, that seed can make the whole barrel full of apples bad: The people you attract, select, and retain help to mold your culture. When a leader controls these processes, there is potential for a self-replicating role model of what constitutes the correct form of behavior. Hire people who don’t care what they are selling or how they are selling it, and eventually, the place will fall apart (Enron, anyone?).
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
A film that, like Wolf, has its roots in real life (the antagonist is believed to be based on Vogue editor Anna Wintour), The Devil Wears Prada offers an intimate portrayal of how a domineering, abusive boss can transform a nice assistant into a ruthless, albeit more stylish, henchwoman.
A toxic boss creates an environment that repels those who cannot or will not play by the same rules while retaining people who do adapt. The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner used food to reinforce any behavior he desired in the unsuspecting pigeon—walk in circles, dance to the left and then the right, tilt its head, etc. Leaders reinforce the behaviors they want from their staff in the same manner. Remember: Money is not always a reinforcer. Social power can be a strong currency for some people who have that hunger. But the film ultimately offers hope when the tarnished heroine finally rejects her transformation and walks away from her devilish boss. This speaks to how toxic bosses—often motivated by the fear of being outshone—ultimately fail their companies by driving talent away.
Monsters Inc. (2001)
Monsters at this enterprise face two terrible office scenarios: making money by scaring kids and having to meet unreasonable quotas for scaring them. But thanks to a few, brave disruptors, cultural transformation saves the business—and the children.
While the workplace may be a modern Skinner Box, workers quickly learn how to game the system to maximize their payoff. If rewards come whenever people hit their goals, then ethically risky behavior will develop. It is possible, however, that someone can pull the plug on the system. Employees can engage in an ethically positive form of sabotage through passive resistance, disobedience, and public notification. Like in the movies, good eventually wins over evil.
Office Space (1999)
This sleeper of a film—a pioneering portrayal of disaffected white-collar workers—has become a cult classic for its funny and often dead-on rendering of desperate, frustrated, and forgotten tech workers laboring in fields of cubicles. Bad management and the threat of layoffs abound, sparking a computer-virus revenge scheme that goes wildly wrong and an employee whom everyone ignores enriching himself at company expense.
When leaders initiate a poor plan for creating organizational change, they end up alienating employees. Emerging research suggests that employees don’t hate change—in fact, we often want change. The problem is that leaders often address the wrong thing or address it in the wrong way. People should not be treated as the object of change but rather as conduits for change.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
Adapted from the David Mamet play of the same name, this film tracks the moral and financial demise of a group of real estate salesmen after the company’s owners send a dark emissary from the home office—Alex Baldwin’s Blake—to deliver a twisted motivational speech: Become one of two top salesmen, or get fired. This ultimatum only drives two of the salesmen to steal valuable leads, and the lies, pettiness, profanities, and tragedy just pile on from there.
Some leaders continue to believe that competition and ultimatums create the highest motivation. Leadership by fear can only work for so long. Studies as far back as the 1940s show that authoritarian leadership does not produce performance as well as leadership built on involving employees. In today’s highly educated but highly dispersed workforce, collaboration is critical. You can’t collaborate with people you can’t even trust.
9 to 5 (1980)
“They just use your mind, and they never give you credit” is Dolly Parton’s perfect summation of the film from her theme song of the same name. This movie rode the feminist wave of the 1970s and presaged the #MeToo movement of today, becoming a runaway hit for its portrayal of three unsung office superstars who successfully overthrow their supremely sexist, unethical, and credit-napping boss.
Dolly Parton would have been a #MeToo icon (if there were smartphones and social media back then). Employees want to see fairness in the workplace. There needs to be an equitable standard for decisions regarding promotions and salaries. The days of the “company man” whose ideas are the property of “his” boss are over. Company men and women take pride in their contributions, and recognition is a major driver of employee engagement.
In this grandfather of all bad office films based on the Charles Dickens classic A Christmas Carol, kindly clerk Bob Cratchit is the iconic mistreated worker with an uber-mean boss. Cratchit endures long hours, little pay, and nastiness in place of gratitude at the hands of Scrooge until Ebenezer’s magical epiphany on Christmas day.
Your company’s bad past will come back to haunt it. Yet, you can learn from mistakes and earn a second chance. Remember when Apple was running very lean to the point of near extinction? (No word on where it kept the thermostat in the office.) Another tip for today’s would-be Scrooges: Be mean at your own great and public peril. Scrooge was lucky that Cratchit’s wife didn’t have Twitter. Oh, and a memo to Britain: You still have some Scrooges to purge. In a recent poll of 17 countries, British offices were named the worst.
Bonus Culture Lessons
The Big Short (2015) and Too Big to Fail (2011)—These documentaries on the financial collapse of 2008 show that groupthink is real and that we need to listen to those organizational cynics throwing up warning flags; they may save our livelihoods and our companies.
Horrible Bosses (2011)—You could say a movie about the attempted murder of bad bosses is irredeemable, but the fact that it became the highest-grossing black comedy of all time (bringing in $209 million worldwide) should give all bosses good reason to be good.
Wag the Dog (1997)—Using the highest office in the land to cover up wrongdoing is bad (see All the President’s Men), but using a war to distract from that cover-up is the worst Oval Office behavior ever.
Jerry Maguire (1996)—That innovative employee who scares you so much that you let him or her go is your next-biggest competitor. Toss that individual aside at your own peril.
Paul Mastrangelo is Principal Strategist for CultureIQ, a 50-year-old start-up company (legacy CEB, Genesee Survey Services). With 25+ years’ experience in organization development, HR research, and adult education, Mastrangelo has delivered executive presentations in 13 countries and 25+ professional publications and is coauthor of the book Employee Surveys in Management.