Up in the air

Yesterday I went to see the film Up in the Air . At one level it isn't anything more than a fairly run of the mill story told in rather long , boring, and repetitive way. On the other hand it has three themes that I found myself thinking about:

1. How to approach firing someone
2. The uses and abuses of technology
3. The organization society

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) plays a character whose job is to fly around the US and fire/lay off/make redundant people from companies. He does this, it appears, because company managers don't want to fire their people themselves but are willing to hire people who will do it. So we see Bingham facing across a table someone he has never met before and will never see again, giving them the news that they are being 'let go' (a ridiculous euphemism in my opinion).

We then see the range of emotions people show related to this piece of information – from chair throwing, to tears, and in one case to suicide – but we only learn this later. Through it Bingham sticks to the company's script and formula for firing, in each case handing people 'the packet' which will help them make sense of the information.

Cue Natalie, a recent psychology graduate, who has just joined Bingham's company. She hits on the idea of firing people by tele-conference – thus saving the company travel time and money. Bingham refuses to go along with this until Natalie has actually fired some real people face to face. His long experience of firing people, and very short experience of technology-enabled work makes him think it is an unsuitable medium.

It turns out he is right, but it takes while, a detailed, fully scripted flow chart given to each "terminator" (that was the job title Natalie wanted for them but it was rejected in favor of some other title I've forgotten), a life-like training program and the suicide to get to that point. I was relieved. Hopefully no-one watching will actually think laying people off should be done other than by face to face meetings. (Although the film was laced with people receiving similar news e.g. relationship break-up, by text-message).

The fact that Bingham has (by the end of the film) a 10 million mile specially minted frequent flyer card – he is only the 7th person to receive this status symbol reinforced the point that he is fairly typical of the 'road warriors' who travel for work – in his case 322 days in one year. The film is shot predominantly in airports, airplanes, rental cars, and hotels – involving lots of product placement. It all served to illustrate the notion that there is an over-arching global business culture replete with its symbols, norms, language, behaviors, and other artefacts. Bingham is representative of someone who is so culturally conditioned that he finds it difficult to act in other cultures – in this case in a 'normal' American culture of weddings, committed relationships, home ownership, and so on.

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