If making the “congratulations, you got the job” phone call is one of the more rewarding aspects of a job in HR, conducting layoffs is probably the most demoralising. Alas, this the career Ryan Bingham has chosen in Jason Reitman’s critically acclaimed 2009 film, Up in the Air, based on Walter Kim’s 2001 novel of the same name. Ryan (George Clooney) is a “corporate downsizer,” brought in by companies undergoing cutbacks to tactfully take care of their dirty work. He also occasionally moonlights as a motivational speaker on the virtues of travelling light – both literally and metaphorically.
In a serious case of upset work/life balance, and what most people would consider a gruelling reality, Ryan relishes the 322 days a year he spends on the road as part of his job, travelling across America as the bearer of bad news. But the arrival of Natalie Keener, an ambitious, fresh out of college recruit at the Career Transitions Corporation (CTC) throws a spanner into Ryan’s solitary but happy existence. Natalie (Anna Kendrick) has big ideas about the direction the company should be heading in – namely a shift from face-to-face firings, which come at a large expense, to remote video chat sessions with the soon-to-be-ex employees – costs are cut, everyone saves money, happy days.
HR has taken a lot of heat in recent years (fairly or unfairly) for allegedly lacking basic business sense, and while it may be true that it’s time for the profession to put its business hat on, the bottom line of human resource management, especially when dealing with such a sensitive area like layoffs, should always be the welfare of the people. CTC is essentially a specialist HR consultation service that businesses can enlist the assistance of during the process of downsizing. Operating within the HR profession, albeit a very niche arm of it, CTC should have the welfare of the employees – be they their own employees or those of their clients – at the heart of its operation. But while the move to videotelephony dismissals would save CTC the expense of keeping staff on the road for most of the year, it shows disregard for the wellbeing of the employees – the human beings – whom they’ve been appointed to dismiss.
In a recent post on upstartHR, Ben Eubanks calls for HR professionals to “step away from the flowchart, roll up your sleeves, and get into the thick of things,” which is exactly what Esther O’Halloran did when she first started as HR director at high-street patisserie chain PAUL (which you can read more about in Erika Lucas’s blog ‘Five ways HR can improve its impact’). Yet CTC not only neglects to consider the implications of firing people via webcam (seriously, how did that idea even get a look-in!?), but actively ignores the advice of its long-term “road warriors” (aka Ryan), who know better than anyone else the idiosyncrasies of their front-line roles. But before Natalie’s money-saving initiative is rolled out, she must first experience life on road with Ryan to learn the ropes of the trade – face-to-face. And so begins Natalie’s hands-on learning experience in the business of corporate downsizing…
Around the same time as Natalie’s arrival into his life, Ryan meets Alex (Vera Farmiga) – a fellow frequent flyer attuned to his hectic lifestyle with her own to rival it; the pair strike up a casual relationship that works for both their exceptional timetables and life philosophies. During their initial chance meeting in a hotel bar the two discover they share a mutual attraction to elite status loyalty schemes, and after much flirting, Ryan asserts that “there’s nothing cheap about loyalty.” Although Ryan values brand loyalty and the perks that go with it, his job requires him to act as a facilitator for companies that clearly do not share his values.
The mass layoffs following the 2007/08 financial crisis are still firmly rooted in the collective memory of the global workforce; people don’t feel loyal to their employers because they feel their employers aren’t loyal to them – layoffs are confirmation for this, even for those who avoid the chopping block. Evidence also comes in the form of the results of the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Work and Well-Being Survey, which shows that “nearly 1 in 4 workers say they don’t trust their employer and only about half believe their employer is open and upfront with them.” An exceptional example of organisations attempting to counter the widespread scepticism towards post-recession employer loyalty is the lifetime employment policy implemented by New York-based tech company, Next Jump. Charlie Kim, CEO of Next Jump points out that if your family fell upon hard times, you wouldn’t dream of dismissing one of your children, so why do so many companies resort to layoffs in times of financial difficulty when there are so many alternatives?
The concept of loyalty is central to Up in the Air – be it employer/employee loyalty, loyalty within a romantic relationship, or being loyal to oneself and one’s ideals. As we see in the termination scenes that appear throughout the film, what hurts the unlucky employees most – as much as worrying about the financial implications of job loss – is the feeling that they’ve been betrayed by someone they trusted. “This is what I get in return for 30 years of service for my company?” asks an employee mid-termination in the film’s opening scene, shortly followed by “I guess you leave me dumbfounded. I don’t know where this is coming from” from another.
What makes the film particularly poignant – especially given the film’s 2009 release shortly after the 2007-08 global financial crisis – is that these two reactions, as well as 20 others in the film, belong to “real people” who lost their jobs as a result of the recession. Whilst shooting in St. Louis and Detroit, director Jason Reitman took out newspaper ads asking to hear from people who’d recently lost their jobs to feature in a documentary about job loss. From the overwhelming response to the ads, 60 people were interviewed discussing what it was like to lose their job during the recession, after which they were “fired” on camera and asked to respond either in the way they did on the day they were laid off, or the way they wish they had. Out of the 60 interviews filmed, 22 made the film’s final cut.
But if the film sounds to you about as much fun as getting fired yourself, you need not worry. Viewers of Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking, Juno, or Young Adult will know that the director’s possesses a discerning sense of humour and an ability to draw comedy out of the darkest of situations. With sterling (and Oscar-nominated, might I add) performances from Clooney, Kendrick, and Farmiga, Up in the Air is an astute reflection of the workplace fears around job security and loyalty that have permeated all aspects of people’s lives since the recession and won’t be disappearing any time soon.