The Office – Inverted Top Gun Effect on HR?

I’d like to take you back to the summer of 1986. Billy Ocean had a song at the top of the charts, The Cosby Show was the #1 rated TV show, Ronald Reagan was our president, and Top Gun was #1 movie at the box office. Top Gun remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It had it all: USSR mudslinging, motorcycles, dogfights, beach volleyball, and, of course, Naval Aviation with a guy named Maverick. Apparently, I was not alone. Did you know that the US Navy saw an immediate bump in recruitment numbers following Top Gun’s release? An 800% increase in Naval Aviator recruits. 800%!!! The movie was so popular and the opportunity was so large for the Navy that they set up recruiting tables outside theaters to capitalize on the excitement the movie generated. I actually was in the Navy at the time of the release and was in Basic Training when the hit the theaters. So, I was front-and-center for all the hoopla and goodwill created by Tom Cruise. A US Naval career was never cooler than it was in the summer of 1986, that much is true. I share this with you today because we may be witnessing an inverted Top Gun effect within HR at this very moment and, if my prediction is correct and we begin to see a scarcity of key talent in HR, we’ll have to look no further than Toby Flenderson and the TV show The Office for the reason why. Whereas Maverick, Goose, and Iceman made it really cool to be in the Navy, Flenderson has unfortunately cast a dark shadow on the HR profession. For those of you not familiar with The Office or Toby Flenderson, let me paint a picture for you. The protagonist, Michael Scott, is a wildly, out-of-touch and politically incorrect boss at Dunder Mifflin Paper Company and is an HR disaster. The things he does and says could be strung together in a David Letterman Top 10 (Top 1,000?) List of things NOT to do in a corporate environment. Toby Flenderson, as Dunder Mifflin’s HR representative, is the thorn in Michael’s side. Toby is hated by Michael because he is always stifling Michael’s inappropriate fun. Their relationship can be summed up in the following quote (from Michael to Toby): “Why are you the way that you are? Honestly, every time I try to do something fun or exciting, you make it not… that way. I hate so much about the things that you choose to be.” Ouch. The Office was at the top of the ratings for the majority of their 9 year run and was particularly beloved by the Millennials. A sizable portion of the Millennial generation sat back each Thursday night and witnessed, first hand, how loathed Toby and HR were by management and how un-cool the role of HR can be within an organization. Obviously, this stereotype was exaggerated by the producers of the show, just as Top Gun producers exaggerated the cool factor of the Naval Aviator (not every aviator that I knew got the beautiful girl). However, the fact still remains that HR was placed in a precarious position and was painted in a not-so-positive light each Thursday night for 9 years. I’ll use my teenage boys as a case study. They obviously know what I do for a living and my dream would be to have them come work alongside me some day at MillsonJames. However, their view of HR (even HR Technology consulting) has been forever tarnished by Toby. They joke that they would never want to be Toby or have Toby’s job. Ouch, part 2. So….my prediction is that if HR struggles in the future to find the right talent to lead organizations, they’ll have to look no further than Toby Flenderson to place the blame. Toby, why couldn’t you have been a bit more like Maverick?

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