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Up in the air

27 January 2010

Up in the Air is a rather good movie that’s been hailed as a great piece of social commentary, but the picture it paints of the business world is a fantasy. George Clooney and Vera Farmiga are terrific, especially together; the clips of real people, devastated at losing their jobs, are moving; and there are some brilliant touches: Clooney’s chilling motivational speeches about ridding your life of emotional baggage, his tricks for breezing through airports and his ridiculous obsession with air miles. Many of us can recognize that state of being cocooned in a weird little closed world, almost oblivious to real human life.

But the ‘career transition’ consultancy he works for does not ring remotely true. I wonder how much exposure the people who made the film had ever had to real lay-offs, management consulting and business in general. About as much, I suspect, as those who’ve praised it so extravagantly.

Like Clooney’s character, I’ve travelled many thousands of miles across America as a consultant, and as an executive I once had to lay off a lot of people. For me, the perks that Clooney revels in merely made all the flights and the hotels less tedious, but firing people I knew and liked was one of the most painful experiences of my life. It never occurred to me – nor, I’m sure, to most managers – that this was something to be outsourced.

However, if I’d known then about career transition counselling, I’d have wanted to offer it. What these specialists, who do not typically enjoy fat expense accounts, actually do is advise people on how to write good résumés, give them practice interviews and coach them on making job applications. This can make a big difference for some people. HR consultancies also sometimes advise managers on how to handle lay-offs, but only in extraordinary circumstances – when the manager couldn’t cope – would they agree to do the dirty deed themselves. Of course this isn’t very dramatic stuff – a much juicier narrative is having hired guns fly out to fire people, hand them a folder and never look back.

If there were firms of hit-men for hire, what would be their pitch to corporate clients? “We off your unwanted people cleanly and humanely, using professionals who bring a touch of class and gravitas to a painful process.” That seems to be what Clooney’s firm offers – from time to time we see him being perceptive and intuitive with his victims. The caliber of its consultants is presumably what gives it a competitive edge and allows it to charge fat fees. But clients would only give the firm repeat business – the lifeblood of all consultancies – if they got some positive feedback from the poor victims. The ones we saw expressed only anger and resentment. And why in any case would clients, who were only paying for this because they had some concern for their people, choose such a patently cynical outfit? The boss, rubbing his hands with glee at all the lay-offs that will come with tough times, makes Clooney look like Robin Hood.

When someone came up with the idea of having the crass young rooky suggest that all these firings could be done more economically over the Web, it must have seemed like the perfect plot point. But it doesn’t take a psychologist to realize that this would eliminate what little human rapport Clooney manages to establish. And it doesn’t take a business genius to see that going down this route would wipe out all the supposed ‘added value’ his company purported to offer, and commoditize it at a stroke. Fees would have to be slashed and the client would soon be asking why he needed consultants at all, especially in such tough times. Yet the boss ignores all Clooney’s protests and rushes ahead. This looks to me like a business that would soon need to let a lot of people go.

The really interesting question is why so many people thought this was a great movie. Mainly, of course, because the story of the Clooney character and his relationship with Farmiga was so compelling, but also because callous businesses make great villains. I’ve told the stories of some pretty appalling ones myself, but I was trying to stick to the truth. Occasionally that can be more interesting than fantasy.

1 comment to Up in the air

  • Ros Wilden Brown

    I’m afraid I didn’t Find Up in Air at all convincing. I agree with you that the idea of doing the business through computers would be stupid. The bosses could do that themselves and I could see what was happening when we got over all the smaltz of the family wedding. It was obvious she was married. There was no edge. Sorry, but I desperately wanted to go to sleep it was all so slow except the flashes of him going through the airport security which I so wished I was able to do.

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