The Planet Express Guide to Management – 33 HR Lessons from Futurama

Tuesday, January 8, 2008 at 1:37am by Site Administrator

While you might not actually work with a rag-tag group of aliens, robots and incompetent but well meaning former pizza delivery boys, sometimes you feel like you might as well be. Turns out that in the future, managing employees hasn’t really gotten any easier, but you can take away a few lessons on what works-and what doesn’t-from Futurama. While this isn’t a replacement for real management training, it can help to give you a little insight into employee relations and, if nothing else, a few laughs. Here are a few lessons, in no particular order, that you can bring to your next HR meeting.

  1. Always have a disaster plan. While the Planet Express crew usually sets out with the best intentions, things more often than not quickly degrade to the worst possible scenario. Whether it’s fighting off giant Amazonian women or a planet full of human-hating robots, the team always comes up with a plan to get out of harm’s way unscathed. Your worst case scenario for a new product launch or a corporate reorganization may not be quite as dramatic but you should always have a "Plan B" just in case something should go wrong so you won’t be left high and dry.
  2. Diversity is important. You would think that it would be difficult for a robot, a cyclops, a human from 1000 years prior, a doctor from Decapod 10, and scores of others to work well together, but Futurama proves that it is possible. While there are few cases where the team remains entirely conflict free, their individual talents, from sewing hands back on to bending just about anything, each help the crew to ultimately be successful on their mission. Your own crew can benefit from this kind of diversity, something you should consider when you’re hiring your next batch of employees.
  3. Support good communication. One thing that remains virtually unchanged in the future is the importance of communication when working with employees. Make sure employees have all the details about how to do their jobs, what you expect, and how they are doing so they won’t accidentally open a box that leads to another dimension, forcing you and your team to close all portals to other universes. That’s just good common sense!
  4. Plan fun company sponsored events. The Planet Express crew took their company outing to a remote campground, but you could plan company picnics, trips to theme parks and much more that could be just as fun and may not result in the alien abduction and mutilation that the Planet Express trip did. Employees appreciate being rewarded and motivated for their work, so do your best as management to get them moving and working as a team.
  5. Develop strong work relationships. Bender and Fry are the best of friends even though they are as different as they could be. This relationship carries over positively into work where each has saved the other from a variety of perils numerous times. While your workers don’t need to be willing to lay down their lives for each other, they’ll likely be happier if they can be friends with coworkers and more willing to help each other out if need be if there is a friendship behind it. Don’t discourage employees from chatting with each other and even taking their friendships outside of work.
  6. Encourage teamwork. The members of the Planet Express crew would likely never complete a mission if it wasn’t for their dedication to teamwork. Instead of ending up like previous Planet Express crews who perished trying to retrieve space honey, this team worked together to successfully steal the sticky, golden goodness from the bees. Get your worker bees to work in harmony by promoting teamwork, even between areas with different specializations. You’ll get better and more cohesive results when everyone is on the same page.
  7. Be willing to give to get. Employees aren’t going to work for nothing, nor are you going to find great new hires by offering half-baked benefits and paltry salaries. What it takes to keep or get new employees will vary. Like Bender, some might be satisfied with a broom closet and a steady supply of energy providing alcohol while others may want recognition and compensation for their work like Leela.
  8. Support continued education. Whether your employees are returning to college after a thousand year hiatus like Fry, or just want some additional training, you should support their decision to improve themselves. After all, they’re not only helping themselves out-your business will benefit from having more qualified and better trained employees. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always hire a super intelligent monkey instead, providing those get invented in the next few years of course.
  9. Check references when hiring. While someone like Zapp Brannigan might look good on paper, a quick background check would reveal his destruction of a $400 billion dollar headquarters, lack of respect for the lives of subordinates, dislike of wearing pants, and propensity for sexual harassment. It’s unlikely that you’ll encounter someone so grossly incompetent in your search for new staff, but don’t just go by what appears on a resume. Make sure to check around to see if your potential employee really is what he or she professes.
  10. Make clear rules about office romance. One of the key elements of Futurama from the beginning is Fry’s constant and often unrequited love for Leela, which makes for some awkward moments at work and also some reckless decision making. So whether it’s human to cyclops, robot to robot or any other combination, make sure the rules about employees dating one another are clear so you won’t end up with a pickle of a situation on your hands if things turn sour.
  11. Give employees personal time. All work and no play makes for some bored and seriously stressed out employees. Whether it’s taking time out for a space cruise or a trip back to their home planet, make sure employees have a little balance in their lives. It will make them happier and healthier when they are at work.
  12. Establish retirement plans. As Fry learns when he checks his bank account from a thousand years prior, even the tiniest bank accounts and investments can add up if left alone for long enough. Help your employees secure their financial future by setting them up with 401K or other IRA plans. They may not end up billionaires, but they will get to spend their retirement years relaxing instead of taking on part time jobs.
  13. Make sure you and your employees know the product. Don’t have a "poppler" disaster on your hands. Before you release any new products or services make sure you know them forwards and backwards and that your employees do too. You wouldn’t want to be caught later, realizing that your new snack was made of baby aliens from Omicron Persei 8, and that they have very, very angry parents. Do your research ahead of time, no matter how great the product seems.
  14. Don’t abuse your power. If Futurama can teach us anything it’s that the universe is full of opportunities to go mad with power, whether by drinking the liquid ruler of a planet or becoming a robot celebrity. You might have the ultimate say over who stays and who goes at your work, but you don’t have to act like it. It’s good to have employee respect but you don’t want them to be terrified you’ll fire them for the slightest infraction.
  15. Emphasize employees’ strengths. At first glance, delivery personnel Fry and Bender would appear to be entirely inept and overall pretty poor at doing their jobs. True, they are lazy, abusive, and sometimes not the brightest. But both have qualities that make them great employees as well, including loyalty, determination, and the ability to bend large metal objects. You likely have employees that are weaker in some areas than others. While you should definitely try to help them improve, make sure you play up their strengths as well when assigning them to projects.
  16. Hire good management. When it comes to leading a team, good or bad management can make all the difference. Half-witted managers like Zapp Brannigan tend to lead their missions into disaster through incompetence and treat their underlings with a complete lack of respect. Other managers like Leela, while not perfect, bring their teams together to succeed and work well under stress to get out of a jam. Make sure you’ve got managers on your staff that are more like the latter than the former or you may find your business headed for a black hole.
  17. Encourage curiosity. While curiosity has gotten the Planet Express crew into many a jam, it has also helped them to learn more and discover things about the universe, themselves, and human (and robot) nature that they wouldn’t have otherwise. While you don’t want employees who sacrifice getting work done to their creative nature, it’s better to have those who are curious about new business ventures, ideas, and applications than to have those who simply drone on through their day-to-day actions without questioning anything.
  18. Promote innovation and streamlining. Whether it’s coming up with new inventions like the Smell-o-scope and the Finglonger or just finding a faster e-mail client, encourage your employees to help you find a better and more efficient way of doing business. After all, who better to come up with ideas than those who use your existing processes and program on a daily basis?
  19. Trust your staff. In one episode of Futurama, new employee and Bender look-alike Flexo is blamed for the theft of an atom of a valuable substance, which in actuality was stolen by Bender. You most likely won’t face any robot espionage in your line of work, but you might have to face cases where an employee adamantly denies wrongdoing in a situation where it looks clear that they’re lying. Before laying blame, make sure you have all the evidence and that your own biases aren’t clouding your judgment.
  20. Develop a conflict resolution program. Like any business with such a diverse staff, disagreements are likely to occur eventually. Your employees will likely be lucky enough never to have their head grafted onto the body of another employee they were trying to avoid due to the skills of a lobster-esque alien doctor, but you can help them find much less painful ways to resolve their differences. Enlist the help of a mediator and set up places where employees can feel safe talking about disagreements.
  21. Respect the environment. While your business likely won’t face environmental issues like giant honey bees, oil spills in a penguin sanctuary on Pluto, or a planet full of delicious but adorable "popplers", you can still have a bigger impact on the environment than you think. Encourage paper recycling and the use of electronic documents. While you won’t have to face the wrath of the aliens of Omicron Persei 8 for eating their young, you will make your office greener and also save some money in the process.
  22. Know your competition. In one episode of Futurama, a recently suspended clone of Professor Farnsworth and the son of Hermes decide to create their own delivery service that ends up being so good it overtakes Planet Express. While in the end the boys’ success is the key to their ruin, you might not be so lucky with your competitors. Make sure you know what the other guy is up to in selling, hiring and advertising so your business won’t fall behind and be overtaken.
  23. Make sure the punishment fits the crime. To an alien, the flag might look like a delicious treat. After all, freedom is quite tasty. That was the case for Dr. Zoidberg who unwittingly ate an Earth flag and was sentenced to death as a result. Many mistakes employees make will be just as unwitting and just as stupid as Dr. Zoidberg. Just make sure the reprimand for these mistakes fits the magnitude of the mistake. Do you really need to fire an employee for not catching a typo in your monthly newsletter?
  24. Train employees on new technology. Even in the future, new technology can be overwhelming. With spaceships, robots, and constant new inventions from the Professor, the staff of the Planet Express has a lot to keep up with, especially Fry, who has a thousand year disadvantage. Don’t just expect employees to know how to use the latest software or gadgets. Give them a little training instead, it will save you time later and multiple calls to IT when they can’t figure it out on their own.
  25. Cultivate loyalty. Whether it’s between coworkers or for the business as a whole, you’ll be better off if you make employees actually want to be loyal to your business. The employees of Planet Express aren’t without their faults, but at the end of the day their loyalty is always to the company and to each other. Give employees benefits and incentives to keep them happy and loyal to your company.
  26. Keep good records of personal data. The owner of Planet Express, Professor Farnsworth, keeps impeccable records of the identity and doings of his employees with samples of every bodily fluid, their identification cards, personal records and even their DNA on file. While you can’t legally go this far, and probably shouldn’t anyway, you should keep track of what is going on with your employees inside and outside of work. Learn their work history, special needs, and a little about their family lives to make work a little friendlier and also to make sure you’ve got them in the right job for their skills.
  27. Respect generational differences. You may not have to deal with the complications of being a 160 year-old company owner with everything from 12 year olds to people from the last millennium running around, but you more than likely will have to deal with older and younger workers within your company. Generational gaps can sometimes be hard to bridge, as older and younger employees struggle to understand one another. Realize that each age has its own wisdom to offer and incorporate both into your plans for your company.
  28. Help improve leadership skills. Whether it’s taking the initiative to save another employee from giant bees, seducing the evil leader of a competing corporation, or saving the world from giant bouncing brain invaders, the Planet Express crew have all exhibited their leadership abilities. If you have employees that exhibit good leadership skills, don’t take it for granted. Help them to develop these abilities.
  29. Realize that even your lowliest employee can make a big difference. Leela’s pet Nibbler might seem too tiny to do much besides sit around and look adorable, but as viewers of the show learn, he’s actually part of a super intelligent race, the Niblonians, determined to protect Earth from a scourge of evil-knowledge hungry brains. While your corporate underlings may not mastermind a plan to save your company, that doesn’t mean you should ignore what they have to say. Take stock of what every employee has to say.
  30. Bring in fresh blood with interns. Planet Express has Amy Wong as its resident intern, and while she is partially kept around because she shares the Professor’s blood type, she also has successfully piloted the Planet Express spaceship a few times and helped out around the office. You can get some low-cost work done, and help a young mind get some work experience by bringing in interns to your office through a program or on an invitational basis.
  31. Always motivate your workers. There are many ways to motivate your staff. From fear of annihilation or takeover by hostile aliens, to a free trip on a luxury space-liner, the Futurama crew is familiar with a wide variety. Don’t forget to give your employees a little motivation now and then too. Offer incentives to those who work hardest or reward a job well done with outings, free lunch, or even just a pat on the back.
  32. Help prevent sexual harassment. Zapp Brannigan just can’t seem to get it through his head that Leela isn’t interested in his advances. But that doesn’t stop him from coming on to her, even when the two end up being coworkers. Make sure your staff have the ability to fight back if they are caught in this situation whether they are a man or a woman. No one should have to feel uncomfortable coming to work, and it’s your job as HR to make sure they don’t have to.
  33. Make sure employees leave on good terms. When Fry and Bender take a joyride in the Planet Express spaceship, it leads to them as well as Leela losing their jobs. If you do have to fire employees or employees decide to leave of their own accord, make sure everything is done in a highly professional manner. You don’t want angry former employees bad mouthing your business and you don’t want to lose out on getting a great employee back if he or she decides to return.

Futurama may take place in the future, but little has changed when it comes to managing a staff and taking care of a business. While many of the examples set by the show shouldn’t be followed, you can use it to learn a little bit about what it takes to be a good leader and a good boss.

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1 Comment »

  1. Christina:

    Nothing better than a little Futurama learnin’ to go with some HR insights! Thanks for your humorous take on keeping one’s staff and business happy and healthy.

    I linked to your story in my blog for the Innovators-Network in hopes that my readers will visit Bootstrapper and check out your ideas in their entirety.

    Best wishes in the New Year!

    Anthony Kuhn

    Comment by Anthony Kuhn — January 9, 2008 @ 11:04 pm

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