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July 23, 2014

What HR Pros Can Learn from 'Orange is the New Black'

Dollarphotoclub_67696687You might think your company has nothing in common with the federal prison that’s the setting for the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Unlike the inmates at Litchfield, your employees work for you by choice, you don’t have to feed and house them 24/7, and you can let them go if they don’t meet expectations.

But like the Litchfield wardens, you’re responsible for people who share the same space for extended periods—and the better they function, the better you look.

Here are four other similarities you might not have noticed between your workplace and Orange is the New Black—and how they can help with your day job!

1. New people have to mesh quickly with long-timers.

If your company’s onboarding program is like most, it’s probably more about connecting new hires with systems, not people. Yet a newbie’s success depends more than anything on how well they get along with their new team.

For the orange-clad new arrivals at Litchfield, fitting in quickly can literally be life-or-death. Where do they usually find their crowd? In the cafeteria.

People bond over food, whether in a Fortune 500 company or a federal lockup. Organize lunches for departments with new hires—or for new hires across several departments—to help the newbies connect over pizza, salads and soda. And unlike Litchfield, you can even add beer or wine!

2. Cliques form and leaders emerge.

At Litchfield, cliques tend to form along racial lines. In your company, people might align by gender, age, skills or outside interests. But whether in prison or business, people with intelligence, nerve and charisma will naturally emerge as leaders.

The question is, will they work with or against everyone’s best interests?

At Litchfield, both Red and Vee import illegal goods. But Red’s contraband is mostly harmless stuff—cosmetics, pantyhose and Ben-Gay—that makes life more livable for the inmates. Vee imports heroin, with all its potential disruption.

How do you cultivate leaders within your workforce who make the job better for their coworkers? How do you identify the potential troublemakers?

3. People lose incentive when they feel trapped.

Sure, no one in your company is serving a mandatory sentence—but they might feel that way. Economic realities can make people feel like they can’t even risk looking for a new job.

On Orange is the New Black, inmates find whatever it takes to get them from one day to the next. Religious fanaticism, doomed love affairs, manipulative leaders, drugs. Remember when Morello (the tiny one with the Brooklyn accent) risks tripling her sentence with her one-day escape from reality?

Your talent won’t turn dangerous when they feel trapped—they’ll just let their work slide. They’ll show up late, leave early and call in sick too often.

What can you do? You can fight the “trapped” feeling by making sure your team members know about ways to advance within the company. To an unhappy employee, new responsibilities, job titles and pay levels feel like freedom does to a prison inmate.

4. People need to feel that they’re listened to.

It’s hard to like Doggett, a.k.a. Pennsatucky. She’s a foul-mouthed, pseudo-religious bully with an accent that sounds like shredding metal, and she almost kills Piper at the end of Season 1.

But when her friends desert her in Season 2, you kind of start feeling sorry for her—until she smashes Taylor’s face into a dryer, that is. But instead of sending her to solitary, Healy initiates one-on-one chats modeled after his own therapy. It doesn’t all go smoothly, but Doggett makes some positive changes—and wasn’t that last scene with the two of them sweet?

Do your team members know they have someone to talk to? If not their manager, can they talk to you?

Now go back and watch season 2 again, and let us know how the lessons of Litchfield apply to your company!

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