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What HR Managers Can Learn from The Handmaid’s Tale

The dystopian story has a thought-provoking scene for HR managers everywhere.

Hulu’s new series, The Handmaid’s Tale, paints a picture of a not-so-distant dystopia where women are stripped of all agency by a fascist regime.

Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, the story is timely and relevant to HR managers — in fact, the show is designed to feel like it’s taking place in our world. (In flashbacks, characters wear earbuds, mention Uber, and even work in publishing.)

The third episode features a scene that all HR departments and HR managers should watch and talk about.

**SPOILER ALERT for Episode 3 starts now. If you haven’t watched Episode 3 or read the book, check it out and come back later.**

In Episode 3, we flash back to a time before women’s rights are taken away.

At a publishing office that looks just like any publishing office in any major city today, there’s a sudden commotion. A harried manager calls together the staff and announces that all of the female employees have been let go from their jobs because the government has decreed that women can no longer work.

The women in the office are confused and angry, but they leave the building, escorted by military men carrying machine guns. Taking away employment is a pivotal step in the story’s transition from “normal” life to totalitarian rule.

Could a scary scenario like this play out in real life? What would happen if it did?

We spoke with two New York City HR managers to get their take. Beth Taylor is Director of HR at Stoli Group USA, LLC and Nakeesha McDowell is HR Supervisor at digital agency Situation Interactive.

Mediabistro: As an HR person, what’s your reaction to the firing scene in The Handmaid’s Tale?

Nakeesha McDowell: It’s clearly discrimination and wrongful termination based on sex; which is a protective class in our current laws.

Beth Taylor: I’m unsure of the year in which this is supposed to take place, but I’m not incredibly shocked by the scenario, sadly.

MB: If you were asked to fire all female employees, what would you do?

NM: I honestly wouldn’t be comfortable with doing so based on our current laws. I feel like I will have a moral obligation to warn the employees because I tend to lean more on the side of right rather than what’s good for profit. Plus, I’m a woman so I’d likely be one of the people fired.

BT: Seeing as though I am a female, I’m not sure I would be given the option [to fire any employees]! But what I would do is gather all of the female employees and walk out beside them, before giving anyone the chance to fire an entire demographic based on gender.

MB: Do HR managers have an ethical responsibility that goes beyond following the law? Why or why not?

NM: Yes, absolutely. One of the reasons I enjoy HR is because it is not black and white. HR professionals live in the gray when it comes to dealing with people, ethics and serving the interest of the company. A lot of the times I’m straddling between all three when dealing with various situations.

BT: Being HR doesn’t give you an ethical responsibility that goes beyond the law. Being a person of principle and character gives you a responsibility that goes beyond the law. HR’s primary responsibilities are to provide strategic partnerships to help grow an organization, while simultaneously protecting it. There’s no additional morality clause that comes with the job—it just so happens the best HR leaders are the ones that think beyond the law because it’s better for the company.

NM: Just an observation—the HR profession is made up of something like 70-80% women. [76%, according to a 2014 report from the US Department of Labor. -MB] I don’t think that is a coincidence. HR has become an integral part of an organization’s success. It’s cool to see women help shape policy, culture, and the moral code of how employees need to be treated for businesses to be successful. Not at all like future described in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Thanks to Beth and Nakeesha for taking time out of their busy schedules to share their perspective. What would you do in the scenario described above? Are you and your team prepared to handle it?

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