Do workplace TV shows give HR professionals a glimpse of themselves?

You may not be erasing memories à la ‘Severance,’ but TV shows can still reflect many of the issues HR pros face.
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Severance/Apple TV via Giphy

· 3 min read

The workplace-as-setting is an enduring trope in pop culture. As someone who works in HR, watching a TV show or movie might feel more like playing a game of Tekken or Super Smash Bros—you choose your fighter (the fighter is you) and passionately coach them on the best practices of compliance in a corporate dystopia where employees’ memories are partially erased.

OK, maybe the phrase “coffee’s for closers” doesn’t automatically trigger a Pavlovian response to impersonate Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the TV, but HR professionals might see a bit of themselves in the many workplace series that have captured attention recently, such as Severance, Human Resources, or Abbott Elementary.

Can shows about fictional workplaces actually reflect the experiences of HR professionals as they navigate real-world office dynamics and their many sticky quirks? According to two HR professionals who spoke with HR Brew, the answer is emphatically yes, though the shows themselves couldn’t be more different.

Work-life balance on screen. Severance, the eerie Apple TV+ drama about a vast, ominous company called Lumon that “severs” the memories of certain employees to completely compartmentalize their work and personal lives, prompted a lot of meditations on work-life balance and what it means today.

For Amber Warren, director of HR at Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, Severance speaks to the increasing awareness that organizations pay to their employees’ mental health. “Severance resonates with an audience right now [because] many people feel like they cannot separate their work and personal lives in the way that they used to pre-pandemic,” she told HR Brew in an email.

It’s increasingly up to HR to heed the calls of employees who have suffered surging rates of burnout since the onset of the pandemic, she explained. A decade ago, “topics like mental health, sexual orientation, [and] childcare options were considered personal issues. But now more employees than ever are approaching us as their employer and asking, ‘What can you do to help?’”

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Different narrative arcs. Warren said that the cultural touchstone The Office forced her to look inward. “I’m always thinking, am I a Holly or am I a Toby?”

“Most workplace TV shows, whether comedies or dramas, really aren’t that far off from what I’ve been exposed to, but The Office, because of its absurdity, was an exception,” Keirsten Greggs, a talent acquisition specialist in the financial services industry, told HR Brew via email.

But shows don’t necessarily have to revolve around the workplace to hit home. Greggs identifies with The Big Bang Theory character Janine Davis, an HR administrator at Caltech University in the show, because she exudes a personable demeanor both on and off the job. Greggs said of Janine: “The way that she maintains her position with the ‘smart people’ at work, is the go-to expert, enjoys a work-life balance, and on occasion enjoys an adult beverage is totally me.”

Will flipping on the TV provide an unfettered window into your world as an HR pro, with Hollywood A-listers starring as you? Probably not, reasoned Warren. “There’s so many different avenues for an HR career that we’re not just like, one thing...trying to summarize the HR profession into one thing is almost impossible.”

Unless, of course, it involves severing minds in half.—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.