I saw The Company Men this week. Being an employment lawyer, primarily representing dismissed individuals, I thought it might have an interesting angle that relates to what I do. Unfortunately, there was no real legal angle at all.
In part this relates to the huge difference between Canadian and U.S. employment law.
In the U.S., most states are “at will” – so the severance provided – even to long service employees is often quite minimal. In Canada – and most other common law countries, employees are entitled to “reasonable notice” or equivalent compensation when they are let go – so they have that much more of a cushion to allow them to find other work.
One of the main characters in the movie is let go after 12 years of service – from a sales management position. He is only 37 but is earning somewhere around $160,000. In Canada, this would be a fairly easy 12 month case - at least. In the movie – he is given 12 weeks’ severance – and doesn’t even consult with a lawyer. It is almost assumed that there would have been no point.
The effect of this difference is dramatic. An individual in Canada in this situation – with 12 months’ compensation – or somewhere in that range – may not wind up having to sell the house, the car, the furniture – and *sob* even the xbox (as happens in this film). Often, the “reasonable notice period” in Canada is enough to allow the person to transition to other employment – and to retain a greater sense of dignity than might otherwise be the case.
Of course, the movie is concerned with the hardship faced by U.S. employees, in the midst of some very difficult times. In particular, the movie tries to show how over-extended, high earning white collar employees can suddenly fall quite dramatically in a very short period of time – and face alarmingly harsh and unanticipated consequences. The movie also comments on the gap between the earnings of the upper levels of management and the workers – and describes some of the excesses of upper management – such as the use of private jets – while thousands of working class employees face the prospect of lengthy unemployment. It also speaks about the very nature of the American economy and laments the transition from a manufacturing and production economy – to one of personal services and resource production.
Although the movie did illustrate the challenges and despair of prolonged unemployment in economically difficult times, I felt that it failed to develop into anything beyond that almost descriptive purpose. I also felt that although it probably reflected a certain reality in some American circles – it was much less applicable to Canadian workplaces – or those in other countries – even in these difficult economic times.
Sure many people suffer greatly when unemployed – and they are not always entitled to generous – or even reasonable severance packages. But in many countries outside of the U.S. there is at least more of a safety net to soften the blow of restructuring – from fair severance arrangements and government run employment insurance programs. Sometimes, Canadians and nationals of other countries have to fight for these benefits. If the movie had been made in Canada or elsewhere outside of the U.S. – it might well have turned into more of a legal picture – as the characters would have fought to secure reasonable separation arrangements – in a court or at a labour tribunal (as in the U.K. or Israel).
Where a country faces massive and widespread unemployment, the safety net will only help for a certain period of time. But it will often make things far more manageable than that which is illustrated in The Company Men.