Lessons in HR from a Miracle on 34th Street

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Despite my Scrooge-like demeanor, I’m a sap when it comes to Christmas. The lights, the tree, baking cookies. I even enjoy Christmas music, at least for the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve). My favorite part of the lead up to Christmas, however, are the movies. I make it a point to see certain classics every year – It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Elf (yes, it is old enough to be a classic). The best by far, though, is The Miracle on 34th Street.

If you’ve never seen it – and I’m talking about the 1947 version with a very young Natalie Wood and an Oscar-winning performance by Edmund Gwenn – it’s about an old man who gets a job as Santa at Macy’s Department Store who happens to be named Kris Kringle and claims he is the real Santa Claus. After a run-in with the store’s psychiatrist, he goes on trial to prove his sanity or be institutionalized. Meanwhile, he befriends the daughter of a single mother, who not only doubts he’s the real Santa, but doesn’t believe in Santa at all.

One of the reasons I like this movie so much is that it is a modern-day parable for all that’s wrong with Human Resources.

Kris gets hired on Thanksgiving when the man hired to play Santa is drunk right before the Macy’s Day Parade. I can’t help but wonder what type of interview process this Santa went through. After all, being drunk first thing in the morning is usually signs of a serious problem. This might have been spotted during the selection process, or discovered in a background check. There’s every likelihood he had arrests for public intoxication or drunk driving on his record (I know back then the laws weren’t as strict for this sort of thing, but they still existed).

After Kris is hired, he turns out to be an excellent fit for the job. Children and parents love him. When a girl who doesn’t speak English comes to him, he converses with her in her native Dutch. His whiskers are real. He does a fantastic monkey impersonation. Most importantly, instead of pushing toys that the store has too much of, which the toy department manager suggests, he sends customers to other stores if it is something that Macy’s doesn’t have in stock. This turns out to be great publicity for the store.

Despite all this, he is sent to the company psychiatrist for testing, and there are those who want him fired. Because anyone who thinks he is Santa must be dangerous. It doesn’t matter that he otherwise seems more well-balanced than most people, or that the doctor at the retirement home in which he was living says that it is a harmless delusion.

What company needs a psychiatrist? I doubt there are enough mentally unstable people working the counters at Macy’s to make this a justifiable expense. In their defense, this was probably just for the movie. I can find no evidence that they ever had one on staff.

To make matters worse, the test administered is ludicrous. The questions seem designed to measure Kris’ intelligence, not his mental health. Unfortunately, workplace testing today isn’t much better. Rarely does it determine whether someone can do his/her job (see my previous blog post for more on testing at http://wp.me/p3ovkQ-1i).

Even if the test were valid, and Kris does have delusions of grandeur, that doesn’t mean he isn’t fit to be Santa. I have worked with a number of people with some level of mental illness. Some had days when they couldn’t get out of bed. Others would rant at coworkers. There were those who believed everyone else was out to get them. A couple I even thought might be a danger to themselves and others. And even if they weren’t, we didn’t lock them up. Instead, we tried to get them the help they needed. They had an illness, after all, and require treatment. I know that back in 1947, the attitudes towards mental illness were different, but even so. They have this man who does a great job and they want to get rid of him because he’s different. Like so many in the workplace today, we don’t measure coworkers, staff or supervisors by how well they do their job, but by whether or not they fit our narrow description of what a good employee should be. We don’t play to their strengths, but focus on their weaknesses.

I can’t help but mention that those who want to get rid of Kris are jealous of him. They resent his success, his good-nature, his positive relationship with their boss, Mr. Macy. While never stated in the movie, it’s clear that this resentment leads in part to their treatment of him. The psychiatrist in particular is an unhappy man who seems to abhor a man as jolly as Kris.

The only one who seems to get it is Mr. Macy. He rewards Kris for doing a fantastic job. Even though he admits to believing Kris is Santa, Mr. Macy probably wouldn’t care if one of his employees thought he was Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and wore antlers all day long, so long as they made him money.

Maybe that’s why he’s the one in charge.

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