HR Insights 6 min

4 HR Lessons from Stranger Things

August 1, 2019

For most HR professionals, the workday doesn’t include battling demogorgons, slaying mindflayers, or foiling Russian spies (and if it does, you may want to look for a new job). But it does include fighting against inefficiency and disengagement, and that’s basically the same thing. For that reason, HR professionals can learn a lot from Eleven and the gang in Season Three of Stranger Things. Don’t believe us? Read on and see for yourself. (Warning: Spoilers ahead!)

#1 One Toxic Employee Can Spoil the Bunch

As we see in Season Three, it only takes one person to get infected by the mindflayer for things to get really bad, really fast. As soon as Billy becomes an agent of the monster, he starts dragging the whole town down with him. Literally, at times.

You can’t plan for everything—mindflayers are wild and unpredictable, after all.

If left unaddressed, a single toxic employee can have a similar effect in your organization (minus the brain-enslaving and exploding into goo). Toxic behavior can come in a variety of forms, including bullying, entitlement, gossiping, and passing off responsibilities. It can also have a variety of effects on your organization—none of them positive. Research from Harvard Business School found that toxic employees can drag down employee performance like a demodog taking out Bob (R.I.P. Bob). Take a look:

  • 80 percent of employees lost work time worrying about the offending employee’s rudeness
  • 78 percent said their commitment to their organization declined in the face of toxic behavior
  • 66 percent said their performance declined
  • 63 percent lost work time while trying to avoid the offender

The best way to handle a toxic employee is to avoid employing them in the first place. With careful hiring practices, meaningful performance appraisals, and regular manager one-on-ones, you can prevent toxic behavior from cropping up in your workforce most of the time.

But you can’t plan for everything—mindflayers are wild and unpredictable, after all. If you do notice toxic behavior in your organization, it’s best to address it as quickly as possible. An article from Harvard Business Review recommends the following:

  • Talk to the person to understand the context behind the behavior.
  • Give concrete, specific feedback and offer the opportunity to change.
  • Look for ways to minimize interactions between the toxic employee and the rest of your team.
  • Keep the situation private between HR and the employee.
  • Thoroughly document the behavior, its impact, and your response if you decide to let that person go.

The town of Hawkins would have been much better off if they had realized Billy’s toxic behavior and addressed it immediately. (But then, that wouldn’t be much of a story, would it?)

#2 There’s Strength in Diversity

One of the best things about the Stranger Things group is that they’re all so different; it’s what makes them such a great team. Imagine what would have happened if every character were like Hopper or Nancy or Will. Even Eleven with her crazy superpowers needs her friends for help and support. And who doesn’t like the option of choosing between cherry and strawberry Slurpees?

Give your people opportunities to shine like Steve’s gorgeous hair.

Your workforce needs the same kind of diversity to do its best work. Diversity in thought, experience, and background help your teams work more creatively and consider multiple perspectives. It’s what protects your organization from failing as new challenges come along.

For example, the only way Steve, Robin, and Dustin could get into the secret Russian base was with Erica’s help. Without her smaller size and quick wits, that one setback alone would have stumped the entire team.

But hiring a bunch of people who are different from each other won’t help if you don’t back up diversity with inclusion: Your people need to feel like they’re part of what’s going on and that their time at work matters. A report from LinkedIn shows the factors that can help employees feel a sense of belonging in their organizations. Some of the top answers include:

  • Being recognized for accomplishments
  • Having opportunities to express opinions freely
  • Feeling that contributions in team meetings are valued
  • Feeling comfortable with being oneself at work

Take a step back and look at the unique strengths each of your employees brings to the table. Show them some appreciation and give them opportunities to shine like Steve’s gorgeous hair.

#3 Friends Don’t Lie—They Communicate Effectively

Diversity and inclusion are two parts of the equation. The third? Communication. This is a lesson we learn again and again from Stranger Things as we see different groups of people working separately on the same puzzle. For example, Nancy and Jonathan are investigating missing chemicals while Max and Eleven discover that Billy is up to something weird. Each group worked in a silo and didn’t communicate with each other until things got really bad. Like, people-exploding-into-goop bad. Only when they finally get together and share information do they manage to solve the problem.

I guess you could say the need for more communication is a never-ending story.

A growing organization can run into this same issue; more people also means slower and more difficult communication. Before long, you’re all headed in different directions as one team is tracking down Russian spies and the other is shopping at the Gap.

So, how can you make sure your team is on the same page? Keep these tips in mind:

With these strategies, you can keep your teams on the same radio channel and singing in harmony like Dustin and Suzie. I guess you could say the need for more communication is a never-ending story.

#4 Change Is Never Easy

Breakdowns in communication aren’t the only struggles a growing team might face. There’s no shortage of growing pains in Season Three of Stranger Things—shifting interests, dying traditions, evolving relationships, etc. Growth is hard because it means change. But as Mike told Will, you can’t just stay in the basement and play Dungeons & Dragons forever, hoping that things stay as they are.

Focusing on culture will keep your organization on the right track toward monster-slaying success.

In terms of your organization, the same principle applies. As employees come and go, your company and its culture will inevitably change. These changes can be positive and enhance your organization, or they can be destructive and disrupt your organization. The difference is in how you manage the change.

Culture is not a one-and-done matter. Just because Mike and Will were best friends last season doesn’t mean they’ll automatically stay that way forever. Similarly, just because you’re winning culture awards this year doesn’t mean everything will be smooth sailing two years from now. Maintaining a great company culture happens through regular, conscious efforts like:

  • Defining core values for new hires during onboarding and beyond
  • Recognizing and rewarding behaviors you want to encourage in your workforce
  • Demonstrating the right behavior from the top down
  • Keeping tabs on employee satisfaction with surveys

Focusing on your culture each day will keep your organization on the right track toward monster-slaying success. Oh, and business success as well.

Save Your Organization from the Upside-Down

You never know when inefficiency, toxic behavior, or poor people management may show up in your organization just like you never know when a portal to the Upside-Down will open up in your backyard. That’s why it’s best to work proactively to make your organization a great place to work rather than allowing problems to loom large. In other words, don’t wait for the mindflayer to grow as large as the Starcourt Mall before doing something about it—start now by hiring the right people and building the right culture. Your organization will thank you.

P.S. For more pop-culture and HR fun, check out our other articles: What the Galactic Empire Teaches Us About HR and Why the World of Harry Potter Needed More HR.

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Tori Fica
Senior Copywriter

Tori Fica is a copywriter for BambooHR, the leading HR software solution for small and medium businesses. Through research, analysis, and writing, she creates content to help HR professionals think and plan more strategically. Her focus is on taking complex ideas and in-depth research and turning them into clear, digestible pieces of content.