Billy Wilder's governance lesson

Dec 29, 2015
<p>Classic film portrays compliance officer's nightmare when companies get tone at the top wrong</p>

One of my favorite films, which I try to watch every December, is a comedy-drama directed by Billy Wilder called The Apartment. It made an impression on me long before I had any interest in the business world, but it holds a few relevant lessons for people in the corporate governance sphere, starting with the way company culture has a way of taking its cues from the top echelons of management.
 
For the uninitiated, the film is about a set of people working for a major insurance company circa 1960. Early in the film, Jack Lemmon’s character is summoned to the office of the personnel director, played by Fred MacMurray, and forced to admit he’s been letting a few middle managers use his bachelor pad for their sexual trysts in exchange for good performance reviews and promises of advancement. MacMurray points out that an insurance firm is built on public trust and it could be disastrous if news of what was going on ever leaked out. Soon afterwards, Lemmon ends up being promoted for giving MacMurray exclusive use of the apartment for his own infidelities.

When a young woman in the company later attempts suicide on learning MacMurray has no intention of divorcing his wife and committing to her, things get really messy. The Apartment portrays a compliance officer’s nightmare. Of course, there are all kinds of relationships among employees at all companies that aren’t public knowledge and that are – arguably – nobody’s business. That is, until they start to have repercussions for the company itself and other stakeholders.   
 
What’s interesting is how the situations in Wilder’s film present the flip side of the extracurricular relationships among employees that management often tries to orchestrate to promote esprit de corps and a sense of teamwork. Companies understand that engagement and productivity improve when employees feel heightened emotional connections – of the positive kind – with each other; this has also been shown to improve retention rates.  
 
So next time you see a procession of runners, all wearing identical corporate jerseys, along your city’s public parkways, you might take a moment to ponder what those companies are doing to make sure they’re getting the tone at the top right in other ways that count.
 
By the way, it’s worth noting that in spite of his long-time association with the Disney studio and his fatherly persona, Fred MacMurray was twice cast as a corrupt insurance employee by Wilder. Several years before The Apartment, he got enmeshed in a murder and insurance fraud scheme in Double Indemnity.  Wilder was a legendary Hollywood cynic, but his refusal to be taken in by appearances might serve governance professionals well.
 
Happy holidays!

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