Last modified on 5 August 2012, at 07:03

Professionalism/Office Ethics according to Office Space

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IntroductionEdit

SignificanceEdit

Office Space is a comedy movie released in 1999. It was written and directed by Mike Judge, the creator of King of the Hill and Beavis and Butt-head. The movie was promoted using the tagline “Work Sucks." The tagline is indicative of the attitudes towards work that Office Space characters hold. The movie was intended as a satire of life in a typical software company, but has been interpreted as a satire of white collar office life in general. It grossed more than $10 million in North America [1], but it was even more successful in after-theatre sales [2]. Office Space has a substantial cult following. It has sold 6 million copies on VHS and DVD [3].

PlotEdit

Peter Gibbons, the main character, is a programmer at Initech, a software company. Peter hates his job. The only coworkers that he can tolerate are his friends Michael and Samir, who also hate their jobs. In particular, Peter hates his boss, Bill Lumbergh, who nitpicks and micromanages him. Bill hires two consultants, Bob and Bob, to assist Initech in evaluating employees and conducting layoffs. The layoffs create a high stress environment in the office, as the employees have to interview for their own jobs.

Peter’s life is changed once he visits a hypnotherapist, who hypnotizes him, putting him in a state of ecstasy. The hypnotherapist dies immediately after hypnotizing Peter. Stuck in his state of ecstasy, Peter does not concern himself with things he doesn’t like doing, like going to work. He shows up sporadically, comes in late, guts a fish on his desk, and knocks down one of the walls of his cubicle. Ironically, Peter’s laid back demeanor strikes the consultants positively and he’s offered a promotion. At the same time, however, he discovers that his friends Michael and Samir will be fired.

After he tells them, the three decide to steal from Initech by planting a virus in its accounting system. They think the theft will be so small that it won’t be noticed. However, they make a mistake and unintentionally steal much more money than they intended. Peter, Samir and Michael are nervous about being caught and sentenced to prison. Peter decides to leave a check for the stolen amount at Initech along with a note taking responsibility for the theft. The next morning, Peter finds the Initech office in flames. The check, along with all the evidence, is destroyed.

Professionalism ThemesEdit

AutonomyEdit

Autonomy, or lack thereof, is a strong unifying theme in Office Space. An Initech memo stated that employees should use a specific cover-sheet on their reports. After forgetting to include the cover-sheet on his report, Peter apologizes for his mistake to his managers. They repeatedly ask whether he received a copy of the memo, even while Peter is holding a copy of the memo in plain sight. The managers do not trust Peter to perform even the simplest of tasks. He is not empowered to think for himself. Simply, he has no autonomy. An exchange between Peter and the consultants illustrates this.

Peter Gibbons: The thing is, Bob, it's not that I'm lazy, it's that I just don't care.
Bob Porter: Don't... don't care?
Peter Gibbons: …And here's something else, Bob: I have eight different bosses right now. 
Bob Slydell: I beg your pardon?
Peter Gibbons: Eight bosses.
Bob Slydell: Eight?
Peter Gibbons: Eight, Bob. So that means that when I make a mistake, I have eight different people coming by to tell me about it. That's my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.

This behavior is emblematic of management's treatment of employees in this movie. Every major character suffers from the same lack of autonomy. One of the cornerstones of professionalism is the freedom to exercise discretion and judgment - a freedom these employees lacked.

DutyEdit

Peter, Michael, and Samir are also brought together by their lack of duty to Initech. As employees, one would consider it their duty to work in the best interests of the company in all of their actions at work. Peter's description of a typical workday is telling of his opinion of his duty towards the company: "Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late. I use the side door, that way Lumbergh can't see me. Uh, and after that, I just sorta space out for about an hour ... I just stare at my desk but it looks like I'm working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch too. I'd probably, say, in a given week, I probably do about fifteen minutes of real, actual work." At one point in the movie, Lumbergh hangs up a sign that says “Is this good for the company?” indicating that employees should strive to observe their duty to the firm. Later, Peter tears down the sign, an outward sign of how little he cares about Initech. This lack of duty contributes to Peter’s unprofessional actions – theft – later in the film.

AreteEdit

Arete is the concept of excellence in a pursuit that is challenging and fulfilling. Describing his work at Initech, Peter says, "I sit in a cubicle and I update software for the two thousand switch... it doesn't really matter. I don't like my job, and I don't think I'm going to go anymore." This statement shows that he has no arete there. The key part of this statement is when he says "it doesn't really matter." Clearly, he has no sense of excellence in his job. This lack of arete that leads him to feel a crushing sense of despair early in the film.

Later in the film, Peter gets a job as a construction worker. This is a job that he may have initially looked down on, but finds fulfilling. When his former coworkers offer him a job at their new firm, he responds that he’s “definitely sure” he doesn’t want a job. The last shot of him in the movie is a wide pan, showing him surveying the workplace with a broad smile on his face: the smile of someone who has achieved happiness through excellence.

Analogous CasesEdit

Galileo GalileiEdit

Galileo Galilei was a famous astronomer and physicist

Galileo Galilei was an Italian astronomer and physicist most noted for his support for heliocentricism. During his time, heliocentricism was a dangerous view to hold - the Catholic Church described Galileo's views as "altogether contrary to Holy Scripture." [4] The Catholic Church's tasked a special team, known as the Roman Inquisition, to prosecute and try those suspected of heresy and blasphemy. The Inquisition levied various punishments up to the death penalty. Knowing that his writings and teachings could catch the Inquisition's eye, Galileo still continued to write about his observations regarding the solar system. Even later warnings from the Church did not dissuade Galileo from pursuing his steadfast duty to science.

Eventually, the Inquisition put Galileo on trial for his "crimes" and he spent the rest of his life in house arrest[5]. Despite his house arrest, Galileo continued his research and supported the cause of truth and heliocentricism. Although the Church took his physical autonomy, Galileo still retained his professional autonomy and freedom to pursue science. It is clear that Galileo had both autonomy and duty. History proves his arete or excellence since he is titled "The Father of Modern Science" [6] or "The Father of Modern Physics" [7] because of his exceptional contributions to the fields of astronomy, physics and mathematics.

Lucius CincinnatusEdit

Lucius Cincinnatus was a famous Roman politician from roughly 2500 years ago [8]. Although his story is somewhat apocryphal – it comes from one ancient Roman historian, Livy – it contains highly relevant lessons. Cincinnatus was an important Roman politician, but a scandal brought him down and saw him exiled to a small farm outside of Rome. However, a few years later, Rome was threatened by an invading army, and the Roman government appointed him to a dictatorial position to repel the invaders. In fifteen days, Cincinnatus raised an army and personally led it to victory. On the sixteenth day, he resigned his position as dictator and went back to his farm [9]. His arête and autonomy are both clear here: ability to turn a losing war into a winning war in fifteen days demonstrates that leadership is his area of excellence. And as an appointed dictator, he clearly had an excess of autonomy. But the most compelling aspect of Cincinnatus’s story was his sense of duty to the Roman people. Although he had been exiled, he did not hesitate to come to Rome’s aid when called upon. And after achieving victory, he could have remained as dictator, but his sense of duty to the Roman people and the Roman republic had him resign his power and return to his farm. This duty – a commitment to the people he served, over his own interests – made him a true professional, and a successful one.

Robert McNamaraEdit

Robert McNamara was the 8th United States Secretary of Defense

Robert McNamara is best known for his service as the Secretary of Defense under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He had been the President of Ford Motor Company for less than five weeks when he received the call from the newly elected President Kennedy to serve as Secretary of Defense [10].

The role of autonomy in McNamara’s career is very prevalent. McNamara was given extensive autonomy by President Kennedy during the early years of the Vietnam War. Ted Sorensen, one of Kennedy’s advisors, wrote that Kennedy regarded McNamara as the "star of his team, calling upon him for advice on a wide range of issues beyond national security, including business and economic matters." [11] However, McNamara’s autonomy was significantly restricted under Johnson. McNamara's recommendation to freeze troop levels and stop bombing North Vietnam was rejected by Johnson [12]. Rather than accept his limited autonomy and ability to carry out his professional duties, McNamara resigned in 1968. In this way, McNamara demonstrated uncompromised professional conviction.

ConclusionEdit

There is a great deal to be learned about office ethics from Office Space. In particular, the movie illustrates the concepts of autonomy, duty, and arete through the main character, Peter. While these components are not a comprehensive characterization of a professional, they are necessary components. These concepts have been integral in the conduct of professionals throughout history, as exemplified by Galileo Galilei, Lucius Cincinnatus, and Robert McNamara.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Box Office Mojo (2012). Office Space. Retrieved from http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=officespace.htm.
  2. CNN (2003). Film flops flourish on DVD, VHS. Retrieved from http://edition.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Movies/03/04/second.wind/index.html.
  3. The Numbers (2012). Office Space. Retrieved from http://www.the-numbers.com/movies/1999/OFFIC.php.
  4. Decree of the Index. Galileo Trial Documents. Retrieved from http://www1.umn.edu/ships/galileo/library/1616docs.htm.
  5. Weidhorn, Manfred (2005). The Person of the Millennium: The Unique Impact of Galileo on World History. ISBN 0-595-36877-8
  6. Finocchiaro, Maurice A. (Fall 2007). "Book Review—The Person of the Millennium: The Unique Impact of Galileo on World History". The Historian 69 (3) doi:10.1111/j.1540-6563.2007.00189_68.x.
  7. Weidhorn, Manfred (2005). The Person of the Millennium: The Unique Impact of Galileo on World History. ISBN 0-595-36877-8
  8. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/117993/Lucius-Quinctius-Cincinnatus
  9. Lucius Q Cincinnatus. (2012). The Cincinnatus Association. Retrieved from http://www.cincinnatusassoc.org/pages/Lucius-Q-Cincinnatus.html
  10. U.S. Department of Defense (2012). Robert S. McNamara. Retrieved from http://www.defense.gov/specials/secdef_histories/bios/mcnamara.htm.
  11. John Shattuck (2012). An Evening with Ted Sorensen.
  12. National Exhibition (2010). Biography of Robert McNamara. Retrieved from http://www.nationalcoldwarexhibition.org/explore/biography.cfm?name=McNamara,%20Robert.