Business Lessons from the Movie ‘Up in the Air’

Business Lessons from the Movie ‘Up in the Air’

Movies are nothing but a crisp reflection of the society around us and, therefore, it is only logical that people can easily relate to them. They have a way of equally impacting our personal and professional lives, which are the two main components of civil society. Most global conglomerates and premier B-schools around the world are relying on cinema to extract and teach valuable lessons and management theories, which may not be easily comprehended from even the best of the books.

One such movie, which has excellent takeaways for every business today, is a George Clooney movie, ‘Up in the Air’. It brings out beautifully the fundamental HR problems of asking the candidates to leave and identifying what would work out in the process and what would not. It also highlights some critical business lessons from the HR point of view.  Let’s understand what this movie is all about and how the lessons from it can be adopted in typical business scenarios of today.

Business Lessons to Learn from ‘Up in the Air’

Business Lessons from the Movie “Up in the Air”

Image Source: IMDb

The Plot of the Movie

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works as a corporate downsizer, who is one amongst the 24 termination engineers assigned with the task of firing an employee on behalf of the client. His company offers ‘employee termination assistance’ services. These termination engineers travel around the world and make bosses’ lives easy by stepping in as the ‘outplacement counselling’ specialists. Enters Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), Ryan’s millennial trainee, who proposes a tech solution to the company’s burgeoning expenses on travel, food, stay, etc. of the different termination engineers.

She introduces video conferencing to fire employees as an alternative to the usual in-person firing technique which the company has been following. Ryan finds this a fundamentally better approach. The movie takes an interesting turn of events from here on, bringing out the primary differences between the two methods and how one fares better than the other.

Lessons from the Movie

Listen to Your Customers/Employees

Natalie, the trainee, attends her first firing session with Ryan. They fire an employee who expresses suicidal behaviour upon listening to the news of being suspended. The conduct of the employee concerns Natalie, but Ryan pacifies her and asks her to stop worrying. Some weeks later, the same employee commits suicide, and this upsets Natalie to the extent that she quits her job.

What can businesses learn from this? The fact that Ryan rubbed off suicidal tendency so casually is a matter of concern. The employee’s life could have been saved had he raised the alarm or tried to help the employee. Just because he was so habituated to deal with firing people, it hardly hit him that he should listen to the employee in question personally.

The business world is no different. Businesses have to strive to listen to their customers/employees, no matter how large the number, to best serve them.

People Respond to People

In the age of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, it is vital to make out which business functions can be digitised and which cannot. In the movie, Natalie implements a remote system of firing employees to cut down the company costs by 85%, and her boss, too, approves of her approach.

However, in hindsight, the revamped model poses many threats, such as lawsuits from clients, loss of customers, fired employees resorting to suicide, etc. Why? Because people respond to people. Firing employees face-to-face is a much more human approach than doing it behind a computer screen. People would be upset and at their most vulnerable self at the time of getting fired and firing them remotely would not meet their emotional needs.

The business lesson to take from here is to understand that technology cannot fully replace human connections. It can elevate the business experience to another level, but can equally be the culprit behind a company’s doom. A recent and very relatable example could be the case of a female HR employee from Tech Mahindra firing another employee over a call, which went viral and was hugely condemned by the industry.  The inhuman manner in which the firing process was conducted, without an elaborate explanation as to why or how the employee was suddenly asked to leave, brings out the lack of human touch in the corporate world.

Implement Thoughtful Solutions

Implementing solutions, which are based on gut feeling and hearsay and not on proper data-backed research, is bound to backfire in the longer run. In the movie, Natalie skips the research part and tries to fire an employee directly using the remote technique. This was a mistake on her part, for she was yet to grasp an in-depth understanding of the company employees and how they would think and react in different situations. Therefore, the solution was bound to be irrelevant.

The takeaway from here is that before even proposing a solution, businesses should practice empathy to understand what others see, feel and experience.

In the words of Steve Jobs, “I have always realized that you have to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. So, we started with: what incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?”

Without doing this, the proposed solutions would be meaningless and a sheer waste of time.

Customised Solutions

In a typical firing session, Ryan and Natalie try to calm down a fired employee, ‘Bob’ who had served the company for a considerable period. Natalie attempts to adopt a more practical approach by highlighting positives, such as how the whole situation will ultimately help Bob to raise children who are more adept at coping with trauma and apply themselves well academically.

Her attempt at logical reasoning with Bob did not work as he was not in the right state of mind. Ryan steps in to handle the situation and points out to Bob that maybe this is a wake-up call or perhaps this is the time to chase his dream of becoming a professional chef (since Bob’s resume said that he minored in French culinary arts). Ryan, very smartly, appeals to Bob’s emotional state of mind, which is presently active, and tells him to take this opportunity in the right stride to set an example for his children.

The skill to learn here is from Ryan, who was so apt in his timing that he knew when to hit the right cord and what to say, all because he had done some prior research on Bob and customised his talk accordingly. Businesses need to offer customised solutions, instead of opting for a one-size-fits-all, pre-cooked solution. Be it while handling employees or customer grievances, personalised approach is the key.

The movie ‘Up in The Air’ has some fantastic business lessons which, if adopted practically, can tremendously improve overall business processes.


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