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What Movie Villains Teach Us About Toxic Workplaces

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    You’ve probably seen a flick with a terrible boss, but bad guys don’t have to run an average company to show us how’d they ruin an organization. With poor communication, rampant deception, virtually no accountability and an overreliance on too much tech, some of the most popular foes have unintentional insight to share. Read what six recent movie villains teach us about toxic workplaces.

    Movies benefit from great villains, sure. But does that mean businesses need vile bad guys, too?

    No, but we’ve still watched countless miscreants run amok across fictional organizations. Just think of some of the worst on-screen bosses, like:

    • Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman) from 9 to 5
    • Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep) from The Devil Wears Prada
    • Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole) from Office Space
    • John Milton (Al Pacino) from The Devil’s Advocate
    • J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) from Spider-Man
    • and many more

    While it’s easy to see how these terrible execs and managers wreck their employees’ lives, workplace flicks aren’t the only films that demonstrate how toxic work cultures form.

    For instance, maybe Darth Vader would’ve had an easier time protecting the Death Star if he offered his stormtroopers a safety certification program. Or perhaps Dr. Evil could’ve stopped Austin Powers if he’d invested in his goons’ engagement.

    From intergalactic titans to tyrannical turtles, let’s see how a few recent movie villains’ worst machinations would create some truly toxic environments.

    William “King” Hale from Killers of the Flower Moon

    The 96th Academy Awards have no shortage of unsavory characters (portrayed by stellar performers) in the best supporting actor category. But one particularly deceptive figure takes the cake.

    In Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, King Hale (Robert De Niro) is a seemingly friendly cattle rancher who pretends to be an ally of the Osage Nation. As the tribe endures a plight of suspicious deaths and outright murders, Hale pulls the strings from the shadows. Nothing he says, even to his own nephew Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio), can be taken at face value.

    Hale’s like a CEO that, while celebrating his organization’s minimal carbon footprint, doubles down on practices that aggressively produce harmful emissions. He wants to be known as a charismatic, benevolent leader only as long as it allows him to grossly mistreat people under the table.

    This kind of behavior isn’t just for dramatic effect, either. Over 40% of workers said poor communication and a lack of transparency reduces trust both in leadership and their team, according to Forbes.

    In other words, Hale shows it’s not enough for businesses to promote philanthropy and transparency. They have to actually prioritize and practice it.

    Adam Warlock from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

    Not every villain intends to be bad — especially when they don’t even have a fighting chance to be good.

    For example, take Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’s Adam Warlock (Will Poulter). To get back at the Guardians for a recent robbery, High Priestess Ayesha sends Warlock to obliterate them.

    Outwardly, Warlock is buff and pristine, physically embodying the stereotypical superhero. He makes the Guardians look even more like what they basically are: dejected vigilantes just trying to make a name for themselves across the cosmos.

    Unfortunately, Warlock lacks an understanding of how the world works. He’s like a new hire thrown into the deep end of management responsibilities. He might know what’s expected on a basic level but could just as easily resort to cheating and misrepresenting goals over learning from and collaborating with his peers and reports. Worst of all, he could throw his employees under the bus to mask his own shortcomings.

    50% of employees feel their performance would improve if their leader received adequate training.
- The Society for Human Resource Management

    With the right mentor and leadership prep to boost his professional development, Warlock may have headed in the right direction without slogging through a painful lesson in ethics and heroics, courtesy of the Guardians.

    Bowser from The Super Mario Bros. Movie

    It may go without saying that a giant dragon-turtle with an army of monsters and a massive flying fortress might not make for the best leader. But arguably, Bowser (Jack Black) from The Super Mario Bros. Movie has everything he needs to sustain a powerful organization.

    Just think about it. Bowser has:

    • a dedicated workforce
    • seemingly endless financial resources
    • at least one trusted advisor
    • top-of-the-line technology

    What he lacks, however, is a goal that aligns his employees. Sure, he readily expands his kingdom, but only if it satisfies his infatuation with Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy). No one in his organization — including the Dry Bones who come back to life just to serve him — can truly get behind him.

    Despite all his power, Bowser can’t effectively vision cast. He can terrify his people, sure, but if he ran a business, he would expect rampant:

    Unwinding any of these issues would require Bowser to completely reevaluate what his company does and whether or not that mission is one people can get behind. (He could also benefit from breathing a bit less fire, too.)

    Regina George from Mean Girls

    Criminal masterminds and evil tyrants aren’t the only terrible leaders. Regina George (Reneé Rapp) from 2024’s musical remake of Mean Girls shows off her toxicity in a high school cafeteria.

    After Cady Heron (Angourie Rice) transfers to North Shore, she quickly catches the attention of Regina’s hot-pink clique, the Plastics. Equally feared and worshipped, cruelty isn’t just a side effect of Regina’s group — it’s practically their mission statement. Worst of all, Regina preserves every poisonous and malicious thought about her classmates in her Burn Book, a journal that triggers chaos the moment it’s distributed around North Shore.

    Regina’s actions create an environment that diminishes and belittles her peers. To even receive her merciful apathy requires someone to performatively worship her. Even her fellow Plastics live in fear of rejection or retaliation, almost anticipating the day Regina will turn on them.

    Employees at Regina’s company would likely avoid focusing on their jobs to comply with her expectations. They might ask themselves questions like:

    • Would Regina hate me for requesting a transfer?
    • What should I do? Regina won’t approve my time off until I agree that Karen is stupid.
    • What will Regina do when she finds out I didn’t wear pink on Wednesday?

    Regina likely would push great employees away in favor of those who conform to her specific standards. In doing so, she’d shut down diversity, hinder her team’s development and limit her company’s longevity for the sake of her superficial expectations.

    Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune and Dune: Part Two

    If something belongs to the Harkonnens, they didn’t earn it — at least not legitimately. In Dune and Dune: Part Two, the Baron (Stellan Skarsgård) and his family maintain an ironclad hold on the planet Arrakis and its spice foundries, even if it means annihilating other ruling houses.

    Every deal the Baron brokers can — and almost always will — go south. With just the faintest support from the galactic emperor, the Harkonnens ambush House Atreides and nearly wipe out its royal line. And when the Baron tightens his grip on the desert world, he escalates his willingness to ruthlessly exploit those who live there.

    A company under the Baron’s leadership would likely do little for clients, customers or even top employees. He would make sure:

    • PTO would be nonexistent
    • “needs improvement” would be the best you could hope for during performance reviews
    • HR wouldn’t implement any programs that would actually help employees
    • charitable giving would be no more than a punchline for his dry, uninspired office humor

    He would likely go out of his way to ensure no company resource — including his people — would have a chance to help the community at large. He’d even do it at a time when more workers want this opportunity. In fact, 82% of businesses report their employees want to volunteer, according to America’s Charities.

    When compared to a Harkonnen organization, a barren wasteland filled with giant sand worms would have a better chance at engaging talent.

    M3GAN from M3GAN

    While great tools are always useful, too much workplace tech could risk pulling the “human” out of HR.

    In M3GAN, the movie’s namesake (Amie Donald and Jenna Davis) is an android designed to be the perfect babysitter and best friend. During a beta test with Cady (Violet McGraw), however, glitches cause M3GAN to:

    • turn off her empathy module
    • mix up sincerity with manipulation
    • avoid difficult conversations (or escalate them to violence)

    Despite M3GAN’s advanced capabilities, she quickly loses her connection with Cady. If M3GAN was upgraded to a manager, employees would be inundated with hard-to-use software. Anyone who voices their frustration and tech disengagement would be met with a write-up — and a pirouette.

    Can’t get enough of villains? See how one nemesis attacks simplicity and celebrates the unnecessary.

    DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.