HR Lessons from Downton Abbey

If you are a regular reader of my posts, you know that I love Downton Abbey. With a large household staff, Downton is a workplace full of the kind of drama that makes for good TV watching as well as the sorts of employee problems an HR person is confronted with. Fictional stories can teach us lessons and help us see the problems in our real lives in a new way, so grab a cup of tea, and let’s take a look at what the HR lessons we can learn from Downton Abbey.

HR Lessons from Downton Abbey

Employees are people too

“But you can’t begrudge him that. Certainly servants are human beings too.”
—Isobel Crawley

“Yes, preferably only on their days off.”
—Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham

Clearly the Dowager Countess holds an opinion similar to some employers today. It is the false notion that our employees are just workers when they are on-the-clock, and they do not bring their personal lives to work with them. Even if you are new to HR, you know that this is simply not true. Whether it is taking a call from a kid’s school, dealing with the emotional fallout from a breakup or someone not getting along with a coworker, employees bring their humanness to work with them. This means having policies that recognize this as well as stepping in and offering support whenever necessary. Sorry, Violet, servants are human beings on their days off and at work.

At Downton, members of Lord Grantham’s family regularly interact with servants, which is an important step toward supporting our employees and connecting them with ways to help manage their work and personal lives. In the first season when Mrs. Patmore, the cook, is having vision problems, Lord Grantham, sends her to an eye specialist to take care of what turns out to be cataracts. In Mrs. Patmore’s case, she recovered and was able to resume her job as cook and not have her bad eyes mixing up salt and sugar. Her employer recognized that there were more to her errors than a lazy employee.

Check references

In a post last year, I wrote about how Lady Grantham’s lack of thoroughness on reference checking got her into trouble with a problem rehire. Unfortunately, Lady Grantham did not quite learn her lesson, and once again hired an employee with a questionable past.

Lady Grantham hired Miss Baxter as a lady’s maid on the recommendation of another servant, Thomas Barrow. If you are a fan of the show, you know that Thomas regularly causes trouble. Thomas later uses a secret from Baxter’s past to manipulate her, which results in Baxter coming clean to Lady Grantham. It turns out Baxter stole jewelry from a previous employer and served time for the theft. Baxter is a good worker, and Lady Grantham likes her, but she is unhappy that she did not know about this prior to hiring Baxter. When Baxter relates the whole story, it seems she regrets the theft. After much thought, Lady Grantham lets Baxter stay. If she had done a more thorough check before, she could have asked Baxter about the theft and figured out if she would be comfortable with Baxter’s criminal past before she even started.

It is also good to remember that just because someone has a criminal past, it does not automatically mean that they will be a bad employee. In fact, efforts to limit employers’ use of criminal background checks have been big HR news lately, and the EEOC has issued guidance on criminal background checks. When thinking of someone’s criminal past, ask yourself if their criminal record is relevant to the job. In the case of Baxter, Lady Grantham could probably make a case for checking the criminal background of a candidate for lady’s maid, especially if that check turns up a conviction for theft from a previous employer.

Offer training & educational benefits

This season, Daisy, the assistant cook, orders some books, so she can learn some basic math skills and other things to help her later on when she may have to help her dead husband’s father manage his farm. Mrs. Patmore and the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes see the value in Daisy bettering herself, so they enlist the help of a village teacher to help tutor Daisy.

Sometimes it can be hard for us to see the value in giving employees the time to learn new skills, especially when the education takes the employee away from their job while they are studying. Mrs. Patmore feels the stress of this when Daisy’s study time cuts into work time. But ultimately, providing training opportunities increases employee satisfaction with their jobs because it challenges to think beyond their day-to-day routine and opens up more possibilities for them in the future. Also, they may learn skills that can improve their current job.

What HR lessons have you taken away from Downton Abbey? What are your favorite fictional workplaces?

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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