Like most people, I watch TV in the evening and awhile ago I tuned into an episode of NBC’s The Office, one of the most popular sitcoms. This show and many like it place characters in unusual situations in order to get laughs and ratings. The episode was packed with light dialogue delivered effortlessly by the cast. Michael Scott – aka Steve Carell – playing cupid, set up co-workers on dates based on his success of hiring and fixing up Jim and Pam, two other employees.
As a fan, I laughed in all the right places; as the chief marketing officer of a company that develops ethics and compliance programs for the workplace, I lost count of the policy violations and employee allegations that could have been filed against the make believe organization depicted in the show. I expected this of The Office gang, but it piqued my curiosity about other shows: How many unethical workplace issues are portrayed in the fictional work environments of the nation’s most popular TV shows – and do these portrayals reflect the reality our clients and their employees experience in the real world? After all, there seem to be ethics violations in headlines almost daily, such as the Mark Hurd situation at Hewlett Packard and even the reemergence of the sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas.
So is Hollywood merely reflecting what is already occurring in workplaces, or do our favorite shows exaggerate the frequency of ethical violations for laughs or thrills?
To find out, I asked our in-house experts, including former Department of Justice attorneys, experienced employment law professionals and chief compliance officers, to watch TV with me. Now, we were not looking to “crown” an ethics violation winner – or loser – and we are certainly not trying to “outlaw” funny. Nor are we saying that TV needs to be politically correct (For full disclosure, I am a huge Howard Stern fan). TV is entertaining. But what we observed is a bit surprising and was recently posted on CNN.com.
We all understand how much turmoil ensemble casts can create. In fact, it’s often the violations that make the shows funny. But to my surprise, the show with the most potential employee hotline reports was not The Office. It was 30 Rock, with a whopping average of 11 violations per episode watched. Based on trends from our proprietary database, this five-member ensemble will create – in one year – as many potential violations as an organization with 40,000 employees.
So what’s the big deal?
According to the A.C. Nielsen Company, the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day. In a 78-year average lifespan, that person will have spent 13 years glued to the tube. That’s a bit more than the amount of time they’ll spend at work during the average career. So as a company supporting over 25 million of our clients’ employees, we were curious as to the potential impact on ethics and compliance programs of our observed highly exaggerated levels of workplace violations on TV.
Don’t get me wrong – I laughed – and our expert advisors did too. But it is helpful to think about why we find certain things funny. Is it because of the absurdity of the situations or is it because characters on shows can get away with saying and doing things we can only dream of? Regardless, it is clear that our popular culture is at odds with our current laws and expected workplace behavior – and the result is billions of dollars in litigation and fines. In fact, the Department of Justice recently announced that it has assessed a record level of fines – nearly 7 billion dollars - in 2010 against organizations with ethics and compliance violations. There are probably a lot of stories in those billions of dollars ready to be “ripped from the headlines” to be immortalized by our favorite sitcoms and dramas.
What is even more ironic is that California, where many of the television my colleagues and I watched is produced, has the nation’s most stringent mandatory anti-harassment laws and is one of only three states with mandatory management training requirements. And for most businesses in California, 2011 is an anti-harassment training year. So an industry that is one of the largest employers in California is writing scripts that portray violations of their own workplace policies.
Our overall observations left us with the following thought: We need to find ways of keeping the laughs and the drama on TV while minimizing the impact of overexposing the real-life workforce to ethics and compliance violations that are acceptable and funny only on the small screen. As ethics and compliance specialists, we can help our clients reinforce that what was funny the night before on The Office is not appropriate in their office – avoiding the consequences that are seldom observed on TV.
I can’t wait to see what’s on tonight …
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