My Job is Beach: Three HR Lessons from Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp

“Barbie” has taken the world by storm—a pink storm! Hilarious and thoughtful in equal measure, the movie addresses serious issues that have historically surrounded Mattel’s famous doll. Writer and director Greta Gerwig takes aim at sexist stereotypes, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, and the impossible expectations society places on women. Viewers have lots to talk about afterward, perhaps one reason the movie has been such an enormous success.

In fact, the movie, like the doll, has lots to say about the workplace. Below are three HR lessons we noticed. Minor spoilers ahead for anyone who hasn’t yet contributed to Barbie’s billion-dollar-plus box-office total.

1. Saying ‘hi’ is a lovely way to start the day.

Barbie begins each day descending from her dream house to say hi to her fellow Barbies, Kens, and other neighbors, affirming them all in the important work they’ll do that day. The residents of Barbie Land all say hi in return—to her and to each other. It’s a simple ritual that seems to brighten everyone’s—well, almost everyone’s—day. A little effort for a big reward.

Interestingly, despite the fact that the Barbies and Kens are mostly repeating the same couple of names—shout out to Allan and Midge—the salutations still feel individual and personal. These greetings take some time and make up an intentional part of the day’s work.

If you’re in a leadership position, or simply of a mind to spread good cheer first thing in the morning, consider stopping by the workstations of your team members for a quick hello and encouraging word when you arrive for the day. If your workplace is remote, send a quick message. Leaders often set the tone for the day, and it’s not difficult to start on a positive note.

2. Poorly defined roles hinder employee success.

When Ken follows Barbie into the Real World, he’s surprised to learn that his job of “beach” doesn’t translate to marketable skills. He can’t actually do any of the jobs one might associate with the beach, such as being a lifeguard. He isn’t cut out to do much of anything, really, certainly not work as a doctor with a clicky pen. Unprepared for Real World demands, he discovers and takes shelter in patriarchy, believing that as a man he ought to be in charge, a toxic ideology he takes back to Barbie Land.

In the end, Ken can go back to being “Kenough,” but in the Real World, poorly defined roles and responsibilities hinder team performance and employee growth, with results that last much longer than a movie runtime. To be successful both short term and long term, people need to clearly understand what they and their teammates are supposed to be doing and what success for themselves and their team looks like over time.

When creating job descriptions and career ladders, identify the specific duties of the position and call out the knowledge, skills, and abilities the person in that job will need as well as those they can be expected to learn and develop in the role. Refer to these when evaluating individual and team performance. Use them to assess whether someone is ready for promotion. Review and modify them as business needs evolve.

3. Even great workplaces aren’t always psychologically safe.

Barbie Land isn’t the utopia it first appears to be—even for Barbie. When she asks her fellow Barbies if they’ve ever thought about death, their stunned reaction communicates in no uncertain terms that death is a taboo subject. When she confides to her friends that her heels have fallen to the ground, they react with disgust, retching the words “flat feet” while pretending to gag and vomit. Barbie’s quest to understand her woes takes her to the home of Weird Barbie, an excluded member of Barbie Land whose appearance, behavior, and house don’t fit the Barbie Land dream. Turns out, not every Barbie feels like they belong in Barbie Land.

It’s important to remember that every employee’s workplace experience is not universally shared. If one person doesn’t feel psychologically safe in the workplace—and it’s definitely more than one—there’s work to do to help that individual thrive and to improve the overall workplace culture. Do all of your employees feel safe reporting bias and harassment, or do they fear retaliation? If your employees opened up about experiences that affect them at work like anxiety, menopause, or political oppression, could they expect empathy and understanding from their leaders and coworkers, or would they be encouraged to keep those matters to themselves?

These are questions you should be regularly asking, and issues you should be working collectively to resolve. But remember that developing a psychologically safe and healthy workplace is not a quick fix. It takes time and effort. And that time and effort should be placed mostly on the shoulders of leadership, not on the people in the workplace who are most at risk of being marginalized. In the “Barbie” movie, it falls on our hero and her Real World friends to lead the way to making Barbie Land a more equitable and empathetic place, which was unfair to them. They stepped up, but they shouldn’t have needed to. That was the responsibility of Barbie Lands leaders, who, it turns out, had poorly defined roles as well.

Author: Kyle Cupp
Kyle Cupp, PHR is an author and editor at Mineral. His writing has appeared in USA Today, The Daily Beast, TLNT, and elsewhere.