Top 7 Workplace Lessons From 'The Simpsons'
In its 500 episodes, "The Simpsons" has shredded every facet of modern American life. Its insights have been fodder for countless academic papers, and numerous books, like "The Simpsons and Society," "The Simpsons and Philosophy," "The Psychology of the Simpsons," "The Springfield Reformation," "The Gospel According to the Simpsons," "Simpsons in the Classroom," "Homer Simpson Goes to Washington," and "Simpsonology."
If "The Simpsons" can probe the deepest questions of philosophy, sociology, psychology, theology and political theory, we thought perhaps it had a few wise things to say about the workplace too.
Matt Groening and his team have been some of the country's greatest satirists for a quarter century now, and in that period the American workplace has undergone several revolutions: the advancement of women, the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act, the decline of unions, and the large-scale outsourcing of American labor, to name a few. And "The Simpsons" has something to say about all of it.
1. Outsourcing Will Continue, Until Foreign Laborers Demand Muffin Baskets
In "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore" (first aired in April 2006), Montgomery Burns announces that the Springfield plant is being shut down and moved to Bangalore, India. Because of a stipulation in the union contract, Homer is sent to manage its operations. Since production is going so well, Burns leaves Homer in full control, and our yellow-bodied everyman ends up ruling the factory like a Hindu deity.
When the Simpson family visits out of concern, the Indian workers explain that they worship Homer because he told them of "secrets," like overtime pay, coffee breaks, flex time, casual Fridays, on-site daycare, no dental co-pays, muffin baskets and Mylar balloons on your birthday.
"You're the first man to ever outsource the American worker's sense of entitlement and privilege," Lisa notes.
"But treating employees like human beings, that's madness!" Burns exclaims. "Well, I guess we'll have to relocate to an area where the workers are more desperate and ignorant -- Springfield."
Lesson: As long as workers in less-developed countries are willing to work for lower pay and less benefits, American companies will outsource their operations there -- killing American jobs. But as these countries develop, and their workers demand more rights, the reverse is possible. Heck, Ikea outsourced some of its manufacturing to Virginia four years ago, where it treats its workers a lot worse than in Sweden.
2. Employment Discrimination Laws Can Incentivize Weird Behavior, But Not Really
In "King Size Homer" (first aired in November 1995), Homer learns that if he can increase his bodyweight to 300 pounds he will be officially "hyper-obese," legally disabled and entitled to work from home.
Homer heroically piles on 61 pounds, dons a floral muumuu, and sets up a nodding drinking-bird to press "yes" on the keyboard to every command. The ingenious ploy backfires, and Homer is forced to hustle to the nuclear power plant to avert a meltdown. He topples -- his flab blocking the release tube -- and saves the day. Montgomery Burns gives him a medal and liposuction as a reward.
Lesson: While "hyper-obesity" isn't a thing, and eligibility for protections under the American With Disabilities Act has no precise weight mark, it's true that there are no federal laws against weight discrimination, but the obese can qualify as disabled if their weight "substantially limits a major life activity."
Second lesson: The disabled do get special protections in the workplace, but it's still not a good idea to purposely disable yourself.
3. Don't Discriminate Against Women, Or Clumsy Woodwork May Cause You Bodily Harm
In "Please Homer Don't Hammer 'Em" (first aired in September 2006), Marge takes up carpentry as a hobby, and tries to turn it into a fully-fledged business. She soon discovers that no one will trust her carpentry skills because she's a woman.
"A lady carpenter? I don't know," muses Krusty the Clown. "What if you get pregnant and I'm left with half a hot tub? And don't tell me you're infertile. I ain't fallin' for that again."
Marge recruits Homer to be the face of the operation, while she labors in the shadows. The praise goes to Homer's head, and Marge gets frustrated that her husband is basking in all the credit. She quits, and Homer is left to repair the town's old wooden roller coaster, "The Zoominator," himself.
On the reopening day, Homer takes the first ride himself to prove it's safe, while Marge frantically repairs it in real time. Homer confesses to everyone that Marge was the true craftsman all along, before the roller coaster crashes on top of him.
Lesson: Women still face discrimination in many industries. A report recently found that car repair companies are prejudiced against women when hiring, and a class action lawsuit was filed a few weeks ago against Mavid Discount Tire on this basis. But discriminating against women -- or anyone -- is dangerous in the workplace; it means firms won't have the most competent people doing the job.
4. Unions Can Defend The Rights Of The Working Man, As Long As Their Leaders Have Weak Bladders
In "Last Exit to Springfield" (first aired in March 1993), Burns is disgusted by the union's demands for its new contract, and reflects back on simpler times in which assertive workers could be walled up in abandoned coke ovens. He decides to replace the employee dental plan with a free keg of beer.
The workers are joyous -- except for Homer, who just discovered that Lisa needs braces. His outrage riles up the crowd, who immediately vote him president of the Brotherhood of Jazz Dancers, Pastry Chefs, and Nuclear Technicians Union.
"This is your chance to get a fair shake for the working man," Lisa cheers, when she finds out."And make lifelong connections to the world of organized crime," Homer replies.
The employees strike. Burns tries to get Homer to cave, but he resists -- in one instance because he mistakes Burns' bribe for a sexual proposition, and another time because he really needs the bathroom. Convinced that Homer is an unflappable negotiator, Burns agrees to cave into the union's demands, as long as Homer resigns as union president.
Lesson: Employers have been peeling back employee benefits for the sake of profits, but unions aren't necessarily saints.5. Only Tom Jones Can Resolve Workplace Sexual Harassment Complaints
In "Marge Gets a Job" (first aired November, 1995), Marge applies for a job at the nuclear power plant, because the family needs to raise some cash for house repairs. Montgomery Burns spots Marge through his surveillance video, and falls in love with her.
He courts her with orchids and fragrant bath oils, gives her a raise, and moves her into the office next to him. But when Burns discovers that Marge has a husband, he fires her.
Marge hires a drunkard lawyer to fight her case, but when they storm into Burn's office, he reveals his army of high-priced attorneys, which sends Marge's lawyer out of the room screaming.
"Well I guess that's it," Marge sighs. "People like us can't afford justice."
When Homer demands that Burns apologizes, he's moved by the expression of love, and provides them with a private performance of Tom Jones, who's shackled to a stage at his estate.
Lesson: It can be very difficult for victims of sexual harassment and sex discrimination in the workplace to find recourse, especially when the guilty party is in a senior position.
6. Don't Cheat On Your Spouse With A Coworker
In "The Last Temptation of Homer" (first aired December, 1993), a Department of Labor ninja team busts into the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and charges Burns with breaking every single labor law. They demand that Burns hires at least one woman, so he brings in a sexy motorcycle-riding auburn engineer named Mindy.
Homer is hopelessly smitten, and tries to reassure himself that they have nothing in common. But when he talks to her, he discovers that she is in fact his spiritual twin: a slovenly, beer-guzzling blue collar gal, with a predilection for double glazed donuts.
Their mutual love intensifies, and they try to avoid each other around the office. But soon they're thrust together at a convention in Capitol City. Later in their hotel room, Homer explains his anxiety. Mindy says it's up to him, and Homer declares his conjugal faithfulness, and returns to Springfield for a sexy night with the wife.
Lesson: Workplace temptations are inevitable. After all, we spend most of our days on the job surrounded by these people. And while you can't avoid them, you can resist. The risks just aren't worth it, and seriously, your wife has the coolest hair.
7. Confidence Will Bring You Career Success, Or At Least A Lush Head Of Hair Will
In "Simpsons and Delilah" (first aired October, 1990), Homer buys a $1,000 bottle of miracle hair-growth formula through his workplace health insurance. When Burns spots the newly hirsute Homer, he asks, "Wait, who's that young go-getter?"
"Well, it sort of looks like Homer Simpson," Smithers replies, "only more dynamic and resourceful."
Homer is promoted to junior executive, and invited to give an important speech. As long as he has a luscious head of hair, he thinks, all will be fine. But when Bart breaks the hair formula bottle, and Homer returns to his normal bald self, his nerves are shaken.
Convinced by his devoted assistant that his achievements have nothing to do with his follicles, Homer gives a glorious presentation. But with a hair-free head, no one takes him seriously, and he's demoted back to his old job.
Lesson: Career success is often dependent on superficial and capricious things. According to various studies: glasses make you seem more competent; a beard less competent; glasses, a beard, and a bald head more intelligent; women with less feminine hair more intelligent; women with shorter hair more forceful; and an extra inch of height brings you an additional $789 a year.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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