Lessons for Modern Employers from “Les Misérables”
By Joydeep Hor, FOUNDER & MANAGING PRINCIPAL
I decided a few years ago to approach the founder of Sydney-based pro-am musical theatre company Packemin Productions, Neil Gooding to see whether he would be interested in my firm, People + Culture Strategies becoming Packemin’s sponsor. One enthusiastic meeting later, this partnership came to fruition and since that time PCS has sponsored Packemin across six separate shows being Miss Saigon, Shrek, Legally Blonde, Jesus Christ Superstar, Mamma Mia and currently Les Misérables. We consider Packemin a part of our firm’s family and I know we are a part of theirs.
Les Mis has always been hard to beat when it comes to my all-time favourite musicals.
Apart from the blockbuster songs in it such as “Stars”, “One Day More”, “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Bring Him Home”, “On My Own” and many others, it is the clever interplay between the four-five parallel plots and themes that makes it captivating viewing. Our friends at Packemin have thoroughly deserved the rave reviews the show has received and I have had the pleasure of seeing the show three times in 8 days!
Having had the intensity of exposure to the show, it struck me that there are some very apposite learnings and lessons for modern employers from this musical masterpiece. If you have not ever seen the show, this piece contains a number of spoiler alerts – it is written for those who have seen the show … at least once.
1. “I commend you for your duty”
The paroled protagonist Jean Valjean steals some silverware from a Bishop who took him in to provide him interim lodgings. However, Valjean’s plans are thwarted by the police officers who apprehend him very close to the Bishop’s church.
The diligent police officers take Valjean to the Bishop only to find the Bishop communicate to them that they were wrong to disbelieve Valjean and the items were in fact gifted to him by the Bishop.
What does an employee do when a client or customer is not accepting guidance or advice that you know they should accept. In fact, the employee may have worked very hard to present them with that information and advice. Are adages such as “the customer knows best” still relevant? More importantly, what do you do when a key stakeholder in (or for) your organisation may not be telling the truth?
Organisations need to have vision/values-clarity: what kind of organisation do we want to be and what kind of values do we want to promulgate through the organisation and how will this apply in the context of third parties?
2. “Lucky to be in a job … and in a bed”
The famous “At the End of the Day” song is sung by factory-workers after the show’s prologue as a confronting depiction of a desperately unhappy hand-to-mouth workforce. The workforce has no choice but to accept the terms and conditions of employment imposed on them: they come across as exploited, hard-done-by and would make anxious even the most understanding of engagement survey companies.
It is interesting that shortly after this song, Valjean as owner of the factory and employer of these “hundreds of workers” considers as part of a life-changing disclosure he is considering making what impact that disclosure might have on the lives of those factory workers who “all look to (him)”.
In many organisations there is a pronounced disconnect between the care and responsibility that a leader (or more relevantly, a business owner) has for their people as against what is often a callous disregard for things that are usually taken for granted.
How does an organisation break through this tension? Surely the leader who tries to make a big deal about this will find themselves the subject of ridicule. In my experience, however, open dialogue between those who own businesses and those they employ around why the owners do what they do is something that does not happen enough.
3. #moiaussi: “Take a look at his trousers … you’ll see where he stands”
One of the early catalytic episodes in the show involves the Foreman (a mid-level manager some might say) who runs Valjean’s Factory. The all- female factory workers talk openly about how the Foreman is “fuming” on that particular day because one of the female employees, Fantine won’t “give him his way” and how he is “always on heat”.
Employers will often hear about alleged propensities of members of their workforce (be that sexual or otherwise). Numerous clients of mine over the years have asked me in similar situations whether they have an obligation to investigate these kinds of matters. The answer of course depends on a range of factors including the seriousness of the assertions, the credibility of those making them and the consequences of allowing it to go unaddressed.
4. “Be as patient as you can”
The just Valjean asks the Foreman to get to the bottom of the fracas that takes place between Fantine and another female co-worker but in doing so asks him to be “as patient as (he) can”. Unfortunately, the balance of the workers goad the Foreman into thinking he is a cuckold by suggesting that Fantine is promiscuous outside of the Factory, offering her sexual services to men other than the Foreman (to pay for her child) and that she is “laughing” at the Foreman while “having her men”.
The Foreman has no hesitation in terminating Fantine’s employment. No employer is well- advised to be allowing someone who has such a vested interest in the outcome of an investigation to be conducting the investigation themselves.
5. “Right my girl, on your way”
Something that is seen to happen all too often is the move to a hasty termination of employment after a botched or ill-considered investigation.
Perhaps if there were tribunals such as the Fair Work Commission in Australia at the time of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, more caution may have been shown prior to such a heat-of-the-moment dismissal.
6. “My duty’s to the law”
Inspector Javert, Valjean’s nemesis and a man who’s mission in life as told by the show is to hunt down Valjean having broken his parole. Javert is a man singularly-focused on executing on his objective. His commitment to upholding what is at least his understanding of the law is unwavering.
Organisations are often confronted by over- intense professionals and leaders within their organisations.
Addressing the need for balance and perspective amongst leaders is never an easy thing to do and often comes at the risk of demoralising the individual in question.
7. “Rooking their guests and cooking their books”
The comic relief in the show is provided by the Innkeeper and his wife, the Thenardiers. Monsieur Thenardier boasts of his shameless exploitation and robbery of guests at his inn.
One can only imagine what those working at this establishment would have seen on a daily basis!
Corrupt and unethical behaviours can certainly happen in organisations from time to time and employers in Australia need to become familiar with whistleblowing laws and the infrastructure that needs to be created to ensure that those observing these practices have a vehicle for escalating concerns appropriately.
8. “Do I follow where she goes?”
Marius Pomercy finds himself in love with Valjean’s adopted daughter, Cosette. He is torn between pursuing his relationship with her or fighting alongside his colleagues.
Many employees find themselves grappling with how they reconcile their interests inside and outside of work. There are never any easy answers for employers and employees in arriving at a happy work-life reconciliation. However, the more each party seeks to understand as well as be understood many difficulties can be removed.
As with so many great stories through history, there are many lessons we can learn of life as well as people management and cultural reform in organisations in this amazing show.