Selection show: seeding literature’s worst HR nightmares

March 23, 2014 - by: Matt Gilley 6 COMMENTS

March Madness always brings out our need to sort, rank, and compare. Personnel managers need not be any different and, since I’m nominally in charge of bringing literature to the discussion here and since we trace this blog’s heritage to speculating on Michael Scott’s employment law sins in The Office, let’s begin filling a bracket with the worst HR nightmares in literary history.   Brackets

We should have fertile territory. Literature, after all, is nothing but a retelling of human foibles. HR is nothing if not managing human foibles. I defy any of you to convince me that you don’t draw parallels to your coworkers when you’re making your way through a novel on the evenings and weekends.

Space is limited so I can’t begin to fill out a full 64 (or is it 68?) team bracket, and I invite you to suggest additional contestants in the comments. The following, though, are a few who I consider to be locks and may be in contention for the higher seeds:

  • Jay Gatsby, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Let’s just catalogue the red flags, shall we? For starters, he’s a nouveau riche playboy with designs on a wealthy man’s wife. Add to that the fact that he’s tied up with shady underworld characters, you can’t quite figure where they money comes from, and his associates come and go from his life with disturbing frequency and anonymity. Oh yeah – and his name’s not Gatsby! Remember the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), give your employees a compliant consent form, and run an appropriate background check lest Meyer Wolfsheim begin playing games with the payroll account.
  • Jake Barnes, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: Barnes, the book’s protagonist, is one of the most puzzling HR nightmares: the talented layabout. He’s constantly leaving the office for the bar, an unrequitable love interest drives him to distraction, and he runs off to Spain with a crowd of idle rich buddies. He’s crying out for some good old progressive discipline (a phrase he will surely hate, since he’s a good writer), and he’s an ex-pat, so if you want to fire him your immigration folks will have to get involved.
  • Governor Willie Stark, All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren: Lousiana’s bombastic Governor and Senator Huey P. Long (“The Kingfish”) inspired the story of Willie Stark, so pathological behavior is sure to abound. Indeed, Stark proves to be just as cynical, calculating, ruthless, and ambitious as you would expect. He also becomes a philanderer, so get ready for the complaints.
  • Okonkwo, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe: Okonkwo is the proud leader of an African tribe in Chinua Achebe’s story of colonial impact in Africa (if you haven’t read this one, I highly recommend it). He also rules with an iron fist and a quick, nasty temper. He’s much like the tyrannical department head who keeps people on a steady march into your office threatening to quit if you don’t do something about him. You’ll need to train him up, but be careful – he’s not going to be happy about it.
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: Take your pick here – Orwell’s jeremiad about collectivism’s dangers had its share of sociopaths and psychopaths. Napoleon the pig is the easy place to start. He chases off an erstwhile partner and capable rival, Snowball (man, do I ever feel ridiculous when I discuss this book), in a plot to solidify his own power. Napoleon is a metaphor for the managers who perceive threats from talented employees (rather than opportunities) and run off your best potential.

So, readers, do you have any suggestions to fill out the bracket?

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1 Jaclyn Hamlin
14:58:39, 01/04/14

What about Mr. Brocklehurst, the cruel and hypocritical head of Lowood School in JANE EYRE? Rules with an iron fist and uses religion to justify keeping the students in miserably poor conditions, and the teachers hated him too. I feel like that school was a whistleblower claim waiting to happen as long as he was in charge (and it did take an epidemic that led to the deaths of several students to get rid of him, shudder).

Great post!

2 Carol
08:34:48, 08/04/14

Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”, whose response to any request was, “I would prefer not to.”

3 Jane Frederick
09:01:56, 08/04/14

The movie “Disclosure” (1994) starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore is a must-see for all HR practitioners. The audience views the incident as it takes place, and then later in their depositions hears their versions of happened. It is classic “He said/she said” in a sexual harassment situation and I found it very enlightening.

4 Adam Pudenz
09:30:16, 08/04/14

Consider Mr Toad from the Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. He’s your charismatic and energetic employee that everyone in the shop loves, but his off-duty antics get him into terrible troubles that interfere with his ability to maintain his responsibilities at work. Despite the extra burden he brings to the workplace due to his absence for court dates—or his lack of focus because of all the troubles at home—everyone rallies around him and offers their support. He asserts that he is the victim and that his off-duty troubles are temporary problems that are a “one-time event” and “all will be well once this blows over.” His earnest promises and the support from his supervisor and teammates convinces you to give him a second chance… and then he goes out and gets in trouble again

5 Matt Gilley
15:08:07, 09/04/14

Thanks to everyone – keep ‘em coming!

@ Jaclyn: That’s a good one – a little Oliver Twist in there, too.

@ Carol: If only your typical layabout would use such proper English….

@ Jane: You may want to check out my previous post on arbitration that discussed “Disclosure” –

@ Adam: That’s a good one that I’m not familiar with. He sounds like one of the 12 seeds that could go on an improbable run of upsets deep into the tournament.

6 Michelle
15:00:21, 12/05/14

Game of Thrones: Joffrey
Joffrey offers numerous examples of harassment, hostile work environment, and discrimination. He terrorizes Sansa Stark forcing her to stare at her fathers head on a spike, having her publicly stripped and beaten, pointing weapons at her, etc. He also discriminates against his uncle who is a dwarf, making frequent inappropriate comments and even having a team of little people perform a mock war at his wedding.

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