5 Famous Movies About Workplace Culture and How Their Mishaps Could Have Been Avoided

In thinking about how the workforce has evolved over the years and the growth in workforce enablement, it’s instructive to look at movies about workplace culture. How do these depict the problems present in the workplace, and how do today’s technology and job economy present potential solutions to old problems?

Below, we take a look at 5 fun movies about workplace culture and workforce enablement, and how the conflicts that drive them might have been avoided today. Though some of these movies are older, whether you’re a retail sales operations leader or a head of sales enablement at an insurer, you’ll find these lessons useful, and the stories fun. And if you’re curious about how to enable the workforce by giving them access to AI-enabled productivity tools, consider requesting a Rallyware demo. (Hint: many of these problems could have been avoided with performance enablement software.)

5 Great Movies About Workplace Culture and Workforce Enablement  

1. 9 to 5

This movie might not be hugely popular today, but it’s a classic workplace comedy, and one that’s worth watching.

Key plot points and takeaways:

  • The story revolves around three working women—Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee Rhodes (Dolly Parton)—who all work at Consolidated Companies. They are frustrated with their overbearing and sexist boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman), who takes advantage of his position and mistreats his female employees.
  • After an incident in which Hart takes credit for an idea of Violet’s, the three women fantasize about getting rid of him. When they mistakenly believe they’ve accidentally poisoned him, they decide to take control of the situation. Throughout the film, they implement various schemes to improve working conditions and stand up against sexism in the workplace.
  • The film addresses issues of workplace harassment, gender inequality, and the empowerment of women. It combines elements of comedy and satire, highlighting the challenges faced by women in the workforce during that era.
  • While 9 to 5 was both a critical and commercial success and is remembered for its catchy theme song, sung by Dolly Parton, it doesn’t feature much in the way of robust workforce enablement. In fact, quite the opposite.

How It Could Have Been Avoided:

In real life, this situation should never have happened. (Though we’re glad it happened in this classic movie!) The three main actors should have been able to communicate their frustration with their executive through neutral, objective channels. 

Workforce communication is key – and thankfully today, with new communication tools available for distributed and remote workforces, it’s easier than ever to be transparent. As we’ve discussed before, the distributed workforce can benefit from better online and offline communication tools. 

Of course, such tools are only as helpful as the spirit in which they’re used. That’s why it’s important to cultivate a culture in the workforce that’s empathetic, one where individuals are willing to be honest and speak their minds no matter their position in the company’s genealogy.  

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2. Death of a Salesman

Okay, this one isn’t quite a movie, but a famous 1949 play of which the 1985 TV adaptation is considered a classic. In case you haven’t seen Death of a Salesman, it’s about the final days of a lifelong salesman as the company for which he is a salesman turns their back on him. It’s a sad play, a tragedy, but a wonderful one.

Key plot points and takeaways:

  • Willy Loman, a traveling salesman in his sixties, is struggling with his perception of success and failure. Willy has dedicated his life to the pursuit of the American Dream—believing that success is achieved through popularity, charisma, and being well-liked. However, as he faces financial difficulties and is haunted by memories of the past, Willy begins to question the validity of his beliefs.
  • Death of a Salesman delves into themes of identity, self-worth, the corrosive effects of the American Dream, and the consequences of living a life based on illusion rather than reality. The play is a critique of a society that places excessive value on material success and the consequences of sacrificing personal relationships for the pursuit of financial gain.
  • Willy Loman’s tragic journey is a powerful commentary on the human condition and the pressures of societal expectations. On another level, his company fails him, as they have no interest in workforce enablement. They simply discard him, which could lead to lower morale for other members of the sales force.

How It Could Have Been Avoided:

Famously, at the end of Death of a Salesman, the company founder’s son tells Willy that he’s essentially useless and can no longer be associated with the company. As Willy is already in need of more business, this is quite traumatizing for him.

Willy is a member of what today we would call the distributed sales force, even if he wasn’t part of direct selling as we now know it. He doesn’t work from a central office, rather, he goes on the road and sells his associated company’s products. For one thing, he seems to have been losing money for a long time. His company could have communicated transparently that he was not going to make much of an income with them anymore, well before they actually did so – at the moment when it would cause the most damage for him.

In 2019, half of adults aged 65 and older received less than $47,357 in annual income from all sources, the median average retirement income for seniors according to the US Census. Willy’s employer could have taken that into account and been transparent about his limited opportunities for the future. In today’s world, they might have used streamlined communication tools to ensure everyone in the workforce knows where they stand. Instead, they were callous and did not act with Willy’s best interests in mind. This tragedy could have been avoided, though we’re glad it wasn’t, because this is one of the great plays and movies about workplace culture.

3. Office Space

This one is a beloved movie, and a must-see comedy that will lighten your heart after Death of a Salesman. Even if you haven’t worked in an office, the movie’s jokes, gags, and characters will resonate with anyone who’s ever made an income. In essence, it’s a movie about poor management, dreadful working conditions, and a disengaged workforce. The movie is a comic sendup of work culture in the 1990s, which thankfully has been transformed through the rise of transformations like distributed work, gig work, and remote work.   

Key plot points and takeaways:

  • A group of employees at a software company grow disaffected with their jobs and find various, hilarious ways to retaliate – such as smashing a printer.
  • The story follows Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston), a disgruntled and disillusioned office worker who works at a software company called Initech. Peter is fed up with his mundane and unfulfilling job, where he’s stuck in a cubicle doing mind-numbing tasks.
  • After a hypnotherapy session goes wrong and leaves Peter in a state of tranquil indifference, he decides to stop caring about his job. This newfound attitude not only makes him more relaxed but also leads to promotions and success as his lack of concern is seen as confidence. Several of Peter’s friends and fellow office workers are also tired of their jobs.
  • Their employer has no strategy for workforce enablement. Orders come from the top down and employees have little motivation to complete their daily tasks.

How It Could Have Been Avoided:

Office Space is such a fun watch that we’re not sure it was worth avoiding – but the rise of a more distributed, remote workforce will absolutely help Office Space-like situations from occurring in the future. A 2022 McKinsey survey found that a full 36 percent of employed respondents identify as independent workers – approximately 58 million Americans.

While a good portion of these people might be in-office freelancers, many of them are using apps like TaskRabbit, Uber, and AirBnb to make part of their income, not even going to an office at all. Such a situation makes it less likely that individuals will have to face their own Bill Lumberghs. The Bill Lumberghs of the world should also consider that not much can be gained by micromanaging their workforce – this is the opposite of workforce enablement. Rather, they can use the advances of digital transformation to help encourage higher performance in their workforce organically, from the bottom up.

4. Clerks

Clerks is a movie from the 1990s about two extremely bored coworkers at a grocery store – as a certified “cult classic,” it has its share of devotees. Though the movie doesn’t have much of a plot, it’s full of fun hijinks as Dante and Randal find ways to keep themselves entertained. Caution: it can get a bit raunchy, so make sure you’re ready before you turn it on.  

Key plot points and takeaways:

  • The main characters are Dante Hicks (played by Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (played by Jeff Anderson). Dante works at the Quick Stop convenience store, and Randal works at the adjacent video rental store, RST Video.
  • The film begins with Dante being called into work on his day off. As the day progresses, he deals with annoying customers, relationship issues, and the mundane aspects of his job, while Randal engages in conversations with Dante, often ignoring his own responsibilities.

How It Could Have Been Avoided:

This one is simple – Dante’s and Randal’s management or store owners could have (if the movie took place today) used performance enablement technology to engage and motivate them. Dante and Randal are bored – it is the mid-1990s, after all – but today, it wouldn’t have to be that way. 

Rallyware, for example, uses Incentives & Promotions tools to drive sales and performance in retail. Rallyware’s app might show associates (like the movie’s protagonists) a notification on their phone alerting them of an incentive for higher sales being offered by their employer, or updates about their sales leaderboard – showing them who has sold more this week. Workforce enablement can really be that easy. Today, there’s no need for bored slackers like you see in Clerks – welcome to the world of fully engaged sellers who have tasks and information readily available to them at their fingertips.

5. Horrible Bosses

This is another classic workplace comedy featuring an ensemble cast of Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Jennifer Aniston. It’s a hilarious and dark film about a group of friends who loathe their bosses so much that they plot to do the unthinkable – we’ll leave it at that. And their bosses are awful, hilarious to watch on screen but no doubt difficult to deal with for these lovable characters. 

How It Could Have Been Avoided:

Though Horrible Bosses was released in 2011, near the height of the Great Recession, today’s workforce has more options and opportunities. The main characters in this movie didn’t have to resort to the unthinkable – if the movie took place in 2023, these characters could have simply quit and joined the gig economy, where they wouldn’t have had to deal with a traditional “boss.” Instead, they could have sold their skills on a freelance basis, and even done ad-hoc tasks to supplement their freelance income. 

There are so many new, exciting ways to make an income today, and ones that go well beyond the traditional “boss-employee” relationship. And with a “Great Resignation” that apparently isn’t over, it’s likely that these beloved characters would have resigned in the very first scene of the movie, and it wouldn’t have taken place at all.

In any case, they would have had recourse to the gig economy, where the workforce can power their own growth, their own way, at their own pace. No doubt, today, movies about workplace culture would look different if they incorporated the reality of the workforce in the 2020s, that are more flexible and dynamic than ever.

Workforce Enablement for a New Era

While we’re glad there will always be new, enjoyable films about workforce mishaps, it should not go unnoticed that there are new tools for workforce enablement that enable performance and productivity. The problems of yesterday don’t have to be the snafus of today. However, for our entertainment, there will continue to be new motion pictures depicting new, toxic workplace cultures. Just make sure that you don’t have one yourself.

With Rallyware, retaining and engaging the workforce is made easy. Why? We unlock workforce potential by centralizing training, incentivization, opportunity management, and more in a single performance enablement app that can be customized as companies wish. Request your demonstration today!