Recently, I had occasion to watch Season 1 of the Netflix series, Marco Polo. The plot is based on the 13th century Mongolian Empire. However, to an employment lawyer, it all seems like a page out of an employment law primer.
The main protagonist (read, disgruntled employee), Marco Polo, is indentured into servitude by his merchant father, who leaves Marco as “a prisoner and a guest” of the Mongolian Emperor, Kublai Khan. Though captive, Marco spends his days being trained in the arts of the sword and calligraphy by the grace of his master, the Khan.
As the story unfolds, I found myself playing a game of “Marco Polo” with my TV screen. Like children playing in a pool, every scene and plot twist challenged me (“Marco!”) to pick out the analogous workplace scenarios (“Polo!”). Here are some of the show’s do’s and don’ts that can be carried over into the workplace.
First, we meet Hundred Eyes (read Human Resource Director), Marco’s clairvoyant, blind mentor. Among Hundred Eyes’ many talents is the ability to “see” goings on in the kingdom that others might not perceive. However, he sees no race, color, national origin, sex, religion, or other protected category.
Marco often consults Hundred Eyes for advice, especially when it comes to the spoken and unspoken rules of the Empire (the Empire’s “handbook”). The show makes clear that Hundred Eyes—the competent, reliable HR Director—is clearly the foundation of an orderly and harmonious workplace, and is someone who should be able to anticipate situations and diffuse them before emotions take over. Furthermore, the relationship between Marco and Hundred Eyes demonstrates the importance of maintaining open communications with HR, in order to effectively avoid or resolve workplace issues. And remember, even the best workplace policies or employee handbooks will not be effective unless employees and managers receive regular training on how and why these policies must be followed.
As for the Khan (let’s call him the Company President), he has endeavored to immerse himself in the ways of the people whose lands he has brought under his rule. He practices tolerance and gleans wisdom from holy books of various religions across his empire. He often inquires of Marco to artfully tell stories from his travels, so that the Khan may better know his lands and people. In some ways, he can be called a benevolent dictator, though he is unmistakably a force to be reckoned with.
Although there are many kinds of effective management styles, the saying that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar ironically rings true when it comes to the Khan. Although most of his subjects are captives, the Khan affords them training in various arts, gives them a sense of purpose, and rewards their achievements. Thus, he gains their unwavering loyalty—a valuable lesson in employee relations.
However, the Khan is imperfect. He breaks one of the cardinal rules of management by failing to apply his policies uniformly. He also does not give written warnings as progressive discipline. He simply orders faithless servants to be killed (akin to workplace termination). For example, one servant is sentenced to death and trampled by a thousand horses for stealing from the Khan. (Please, don’t try this in the workplace.) However, when Marco’s father is caught stealing silk worms, he is not ordered killed. Instead, the Khan only brands and banishes him from the Kingdom (a swift “final written warning”), out of compassion for Marco.
In a workplace environment, a company’s failure to apply its policies uniformly, unless there is a legitimate reason for doing so, can give rise to a disparate treatment discrimination claim. Also remember, the punishment should fit the crime. In some cases, progressive discipline, like a warning or suspension, may be more appropriate than swift employment action, such as termination.
Just as in a typical South Florida workplace, Marco Polo episodes are full of plot twists, flared tempers (and those who lose their heads), deception and cliffhanger endings. No matter what your company’s management style, watch a few episodes for yourself, and see if you’re a pro (or Khan) at good workplace management.