HR Cinema is an ongoing feature here at The Employer’s Lawyer. It combines my love of movies with my passion for human resources and employment law. Please feel free to suggest movies in the comments and I will do my best to incorporate your suggestions.
Well, we’ve already established that I’m a nerd and a big fan of comic book movies, so it was only a matter of time until I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and turned it into a blog post. For those of you that haven’t seen it, stop reading and go see it right now (just leave work, it’s okay, I won’t tell), because not only is it an excellent movie, but there will be spoilers ahead.
Here’s the summary, from IMDB, just in case you haven’t seen one of the millions of trailers:
After stealing a mysterious orb in the far reaches of outer space, Peter Quill is now the main target of a manhunt led by the villain known as Ronan the Accuser. To help fight Ronan and his team and save the galaxy from his power, Quill creates a team known as the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ to save the world.
Okay, so besides being one of my favorite movies this year, what can Guardians of the Galaxy teach us about the workplace?
What What They Say (Part I)
Rocket is one of the of the ragtag group that calls themselves the Guardians of the Galaxy and he’s fairly hard to miss, since he’s a sarcastic, talking raccoon. Throughout the beginning of the movie, Rocket is referred to as “vermin” and a number of other derogatory names. It becomes clear, fairly quickly, that despite his hard (yet fluffy) exterior, Rocket is hurt by the name-calling. Upset and angry, Rocket lashes out at the rest of his team. Unbeknownst to the others, Rocket couldn’t help that he was experimented on, and turned into a talking raccoon.
In the workplace, it is important to make it clear that speech that is discriminatory or demeaning to fellow employees will not be tolerated. Until his outburst and confession regarding the effect of the derogatory names, Rocket didn’t truly feel like he was part of the team. Once the team stopped referring to him by derogatory names, he was willing to risk his life to save them. If employees are alienating another employee, or group of employees, you’re bound to run into problems.
First, you are at risk for a lawsuit based on discrimination. Current case law has made it clear that everyone is in a protected class, and with state laws generally providing more protection than federal laws, it is easier and easier to bring a discrimination suit. While an employee’s derogatory speech will not immediately give rise to liability, your company’s failure to properly address the derogatory speech will almost certainly place you on the losing end of a lawsuit.
In addition, the simple fact that an employee or group of employees feels alienated may have detrimental effects on your business. Many studies have shown that bullied or alienated employees are significantly less productive.
Movie Takeaway: You should have policies prohibiting discriminatory behavior, as well as provide training on acceptable and unacceptable behavior, or you could find yourself on the losing end of a lawsuit and with unproductive employees.
What What They Say (Part II)
Another of the Guardians, Gamora, is something of a wildcard. Initially, she’s dispatched by the film’s bad guy, Ronan, to obtain the mysterious orb that Star Lord has stolen. We quickly find out that she took the assignment in order to betray Ronan, and sell the orb herself, to ensure that Ronan can’t get it. However, no one knows Gamora’s true intentions, particularly the other inmates when she’s imprisoned. Many of them talk about how she is Ronan’s unthinking and unfeeling henchwoman, and acting only to assist Ronan, which obviously hurts her credibility as a potential hero.
Similarly, its easy for rumor and innuendo to get out of control in the workplace, leading to damaged reputations and careers. As many of us know, workplaces can be worse than high schools when it comes to rumors. Rumors also have another name: defamation. Defamation is limited to only speech or writings that are false and published to third-parties, but quite frankly, that’s exactly what rumors are.
While not something that often comes up in the workplace, human resources or employment law, defamation is a very real possibility.
Employers also need to cognizant of what supervisors and other management personnel say about employees to third-parties, whether inside or outside the company. Additionally, employers should decline to provide references to former employees, to reduce the chances of being sued for defamation if they provide a negative reference. It is perfectly acceptable to provide the employee’s start and end date, as well as job title and final salary, when asked for a reference.
Statements, particularly those that are written, could come back to haunt your company if an employee or former employee brings a defamation suit. Even if you win in the end, defending such a suit could lead to significant attorney’s fees.
Movie Takeaway: Consider policies that prohibit spreading rumors about others and decline to provide references to former employees.
A hat-tip to Kate Bischoff for her suggestion of the movie and her help in writing this post! If you’re not following her on Twitter, you should be!