5 Cautionary HR Lessons from “House of Cards”

By Amy Lahti | April 23, 2013

Claire Underwood’s Big Human-Resources Mistakes on Netflix’s House of Cards

There’s not much I love more than suspenseful TV. I recently got drawn into Netflix’s new original series, House of Cards, and watched every episode avidly until the cliffhanger conclusion (and now can hardly wait for the next season to be released!).  In addition to providing great entertainment, the show provided great lessons for managers on how NOT to handle a problem with an insubordinate employee. Watchers of the show will know I’m referencing the way that Claire Underwood, the super-stylish, calculating nonprofit director, handled the insubordination of her pregnant employee, Gillian Cole.

If you haven’t watched the series, here’s a brief recap of the situation: Gillian goes to work for Claire’s nonprofit, a clean-water advocacy organization. Gillian later tells Claire she is expecting a baby. Shortly thereafter, Gillian disobeys a directive from Claire. Claire confronts her about the insubordination in heated one-on-one conversation in a hallway outside an office restroom. Claire “suggests” Gillian take a “leave of absence.” When Gillian asks, incredulously, “Am I being fired?” Claire replies, “that’s up to you.” Later, Claire is informed that Gillian is suing for pregnancy discrimination, claiming Claire said things she didn’t say about Gillian’s pregnancy and that Claire did, in fact fire her – and Gillian wants to take the case to court, to expose some other questionable HR practices Claire has engaged in previously. (P.S., if you have Netflix, this story plays out in Epsiodes 12 and 13 of the series – go watch!  But be advised, the show is for mature audiences.)

Any HR professional, I’m sure, could see trouble coming for Claire from a mile away. Although the show is the most dramatic of TV dramas, the mistakes Claire makes with Gillian are unfortunately very common. Here are some of the lessons managers can learn from Claire’s experience:

  1. Reprimands, or conversations about employee performance, should never happen “on the fly.”  One of Claire’s biggest mistakes was in choosing to confront Gillian in a hallway, in an almost ambush-style confrontation, when Gillian wasn’t expecting it. Claire should have set a meeting with Gillian to discuss the issue, made an outline or some notes about the situation, and then remained calm and focused on finding a solution in the meeting. Let’s face it – if someone accosted you about a problem as you were coming out of the bathroom, it would feel like an attack, right? As a manager, it’s up to you to set the tone of difficult conversations and allow employees at least the opportunity to respond rationally. Even if they ultimately don’t.
  2. Be clear about what consequences you’re applying in a situation where an employee is being disciplined.  Claire’s suggestion that Gillian “take a leave of absence” was unclear and left a great deal open to Gillian’s interpretation.  Is this suggested “leave of absence” paid leave, or unpaid leave? Was Claire trying to force Gillian to take her FMLA leave early, which is very tricky for employers to do legally?  How long would this “leave” be, and when (and under what conditions) would Gillian be allowed to return to work?  If you’re saying to yourself, “well, it was a spur-of-the-moment suggestion” – that’s exactly my point. Employee discipline, handled poorly, can have serious consequences for employers. If you aren’t clear about the parameters of the consequence you’re applying, the employee will fill in the blanks themselves. Which is exactly what happens to Claire.
  3. Having difficult conversations with employees isn’t something a manager should do alone.
  4. Once adverse action has been threatened, the manager should never approach the employee personally to “smooth over” the situation. After Claire is notified about Gillian’s pending lawsuit, she goes to Gillian’s apartment in an attempt to reason with her on a personal level. Gillian, predictably, becomes upset and a bitter argument ensues. Although Claire reached out to Gillian with the best intentions, she probably just made the situation worse –even if she did get a bit more information about Gillian’s motivations. Once an employee has made a complaint to a regulatory agency, gotten a lawyer, etc., there is no amount of personal outreach by a manager that is going to “fix” the situation. Both parties should make every attempt to stay away from each other. Follow your HR consultant or lawyer’s advice.
  5. Never assume you know what’s really motivating or driving an employee – or that your “friendship” with an employee will prevent them from taking action against you, and your organization.  This is another common mistake, especially in small organizations with a tight-knit staff. I have heard people say things like “we’re a family here!”  Great! It’s always nice to see people treating each other with warmth and respect.  Unfortunately, family members still sue each other.  All the time. As wonderful and close and amicable as a relationship between a supervisor and employee might be, it’s still an employment relationship, subject to employment law. Managers should never assume that statements or actions made casually, or that have no malicious intent, will be taken as harmless by an employee. Claire felt like she and Gillian had enough in common, and were friendly enough, that she could talk Gillian out of her lawsuit. Claire had no idea that Gillian had long harbored deep resentment against Claire, and had a whole host of hidden motivations for acting the way she did. Never make assumptions about your employee’s motivations, or assume they won’t take action against you or the organization if they feel wronged.

Who knew a TV drama could teach us so much about human resources, right? Now that you know how to avoid Claire’s mistakes, you can also avoid the consequence she is facing – a lawsuit that no matter how unfounded, or unfair, will cost her considerable time, money, organizational resources, reputational damage, and heartache. I can’t wait to see what will happen with Claire and Gillian in Season 2 of House of Cards

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Amy Lahti

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